Nonviolent Communication™ and Death

“We don’t die out of the universe, we die into it and into each others’ hearts.”

-author unknown

What is the overlap between Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and death? Does NVC make it easier to talk about death? How else can NVC help us when broaching this often challenging topic?

Nonviolent Communication, also known as NVC, is a process pioneered by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg based on an understanding that all human beings are motivated by the same Universal Human Needs, and that conflicts can be resolved peacefully through honest and empathic communication.

Of all the topics that can be awkward to talk about, death might be at the top of the list!

In this article we’ll explore how NVC can help us navigate conversations related to death.

How does NVC help us in dealing with the death of a loved one?

Mourning and grieving are as natural as sitting, walking, and lying down — as natural as births and weddings.

NVC teaches us that celebrations and mournings are two sides of the same coin. How so?

Anytime we mourn or grieve it’s precisely because there is something beautiful or wonderful that we have had to let go of!

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, creator of NVC, described “life-connected mourning” as the process of being present with the feelings flowing through you, while at the same time staying connected to the needs — the precious life-energy of what was beautiful or wonderful in the thing that has changed or that you have lost — rather than focusing on any thinking about who was right or wrong.

When a loved one dies, it’s natural to feel a range of emotions, including grief, sadness, and anger. These emotions are all valid and important to acknowledge and process. NVC can help you understand and express these emotions in a healthy way, rather than lashing out or bottling them up.

If you have lost a loved one, it’s ok to feel whatever you’re feeling! And you also have the opportunity to put your attention on the beauty or goodness behind what are commonly avoided feelings.

Many of us resist mourning and grieving because it is uncomfortable. Ultimately, mourning and grieving can be a very natural and healthy part of your process!

One key aspect of NVC is the practice of observing and expressing your own feelings and needs, rather than making judgments or accusations about others. This can be especially useful when dealing with the death of a loved one, allowing you to express your emotions without blaming or judging others for your feelings.

For example, “you shouldn’t have died,” can become “I feel sad and lost without you here.”

There’s a story from the time of the Buddha of a mother who, distraught with grief, nearly lost her mind refusing to believe that her young child had died. She brought the body of the child to the Buddha to see if he could help. He said, “Go to the city and get three sesame seeds. But they must come from a family in which no one has died.” She went house to house, block by block, asking for a few sesame seeds. However, and after having traversed nearly the entire city, every family she talked to had lost a loved one at some point, whether a parent, a grandparent, a child, a sibling, or someone else. In the end, this experience gave her perspective and helped normalize the fact that death touches every family. She regained her mental and emotional balance and was able to come to acceptance of the fact that her child had passed away.

Ultimately, the death of a loved one is a difficult and emotional experience that can leave you feeling lost and unsure of how to move forward. NVC can be a valuable tool for dealing with these emotions and finding ways to cope with the loss.

NVC can help you understand and express your own feelings, to empathize with, in other words to compassionately understand, the feelings of others, and to find ways to honor and remember your loved ones.

“Life and death are not opposites. Rather birth and death are at opposite ends of a spectrum we call life.” — author unknown.

How does NVC help us comfort someone else who has lost a loved one?

One of the key aspects of NVC is empathy, or the ability to connect, respectfully or compassionately, with the feelings of others.

In NVC you focus on observations, feelings, needs, and requests, rather than on judgments or blame.

When someone is grieving, it can be valuable to acknowledge their pain and the difficulties they are experiencing, rather than trying to fix the situation or minimize their feelings. You can do this by expressing your observations (what you see and hear), and by sharing your own feelings and needs in a way that is non-judgmental.

For example, “you shouldn’t be so upset about your mother’s death,” could become “I see that you are crying and imagine that you are feeling a lot of pain. I am here for you and I care about your feelings. Is there anything I can do to support you?” This helps the other person simply feel what they’re feeling, trust in your care, and perceive that you are there for them rather than trying to fix the situation or make their feelings go away.

When a loved one dies, it can be helpful to allow others to express their emotions and to try to understand their perspective. This can foster a sense of connection and support during a difficult time.

NVC also teaches you to resist the urge to rescue someone from uncomfortable feelings. It can be easy to fall into this by trying to fix, resolve, or bypass by trying to shift attention to other things. (“Don’t be sad!”, “You have so much to be grateful for!”, “Think about it — things could be worse.”)

Ultimately, this does not actually serve someone who is in grief or mourning.

So — what does help?

One of the most powerful ways to demonstrate your care is by simply being present, and allowing someone to go through their feelings.

Mourning the death of a loved one can take time — and that’s ok. Simply be present and express your care as best you can.

In addition to empathic presence and understanding, someone who is grieving can also benefit from tangible support. This can be as simple as offering to cook or clean — any concrete offer of support that is also mindful and respectful of their needs and boundaries.

NVC can also be useful in situations where there are conflicts or misunderstandings around the topic of death.

For example, if there are disagreements about funeral arrangements or end-of-life care, NVC can help to facilitate a peaceful resolution. By focusing on observations, feelings, needs, and requests, we can express our own needs and feelings without attacking or blaming the other person.

For example, “you are being selfish by not wanting to have a traditional funeral,” could become “I understand that you’re feeling overwhelmed and that you want to keep things simple. I have a need for closure and for a chance to say goodbye to my loved one in a way that feels meaningful to me. I would love for us to find a way to meet both of our needs.”

This approach has a higher likelihood of opening up dialogue in order to find a solution that works for everyone.

Can NVC help us communicate during the adjustment after the death of a loved one?

If you are coping with the death of a loved one, you might want to find ways to honor their memory and to find meaning in their life.

This could involve creating a memorial or finding ways to carry on their legacy.

NVC can help you express your feelings and needs related to these activities in a way that is respectful and compassionate to yourself and others.

How does NVC make it easier to talk to a child about death?

Sometimes adults avoid talking with children about death either because they feel awkward not knowing how to broach the topic, or because they’re afraid of stimulating trauma for the child.

It will be valuable to consider the age and developmental stage of a child when bringing up the subject. You might approach it quite differently with a 4 year-old than with a 12 year-old.

Very young children may have a harder time understanding the concept of death, and we recommend availing yourself of trustworthy resources for understanding how to approach the topic in a way that is age-appropriate and sensitive to the child’s needs.

NVC can be a useful tool for helping children to express their emotions and to understand the emotions of others. For example, instead of saying “You shouldn’t be sad,” we might say “It sounds like you are feeling sad because you miss your grandma.”

This contributes to the child experiencing compassionate understanding as well as love and support, so that they can move through their own grieving process in a healthy way.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC and Death

Dr. Rosenberg seems to have lived his life in a way that was cognizant of the saying: “Everybody dies, but not everybody lives” (author unknown).

He lived his life fully, serving others all around the world by mediating conflicts and training people in NVC, often taking little time for anything extraneous to his mission.

Dr. Rosenberg sometimes told the following story. As he drove his car across the United States offering trainings during the 1970s the thought crossed his mind: someday, many years after my passing, this work might go around the world, perhaps even as far as India. And the memory of this experience — driving his car and having that thought — came back to him as his plane was taking off shortly after having delivered a series of workshops in India in the early 1990s. As he shared this anecdote, he said that he felt as if he had fulfilled his vision and mission, and that any remaining life he had left was “extra.”

Another colleague, CNVC Certified Trainer Inbal Kashtan also seemed to have made peace with the unavoidable reality of death and dying. Months before her death from cancer she was reported to have declared with unshakeable clarity and calmness that “Death is nothing to be afraid of.”

We leave you with this poem by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson.

Antidotes to Fear of Death –by Rebecca Elson

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

Elson, R. (2018). Antidotes to Fear of Death. In A Responsibility to Awe. poem, Carcanet Press.

PuddleDancer Press Books on NVC and Death

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