Nonviolent Communication™ and Grief
“Mourning is very important to do for sorrow, sadness, loss. Hours, days, weeks, years, whatever it takes. Let my feelings tell me when I’m through mourning.”
Nonviolent Communication gives us tools and distinctions for mourning and grieving in a healthy and constructive way, which serves us and others.
The Cost of Unprocessed Grief
What happens when I don’t process my grief?
What happens with unprocessed grief is that we store it in our body; in our tissues.
After all, mind and body are only separate in language. (Wiggle your toes. Can you feel that? Your mind is down there! The brain is a physical organ, but your nervous system goes through your whole body.)
When we have unprocessed grief our walking feels heavier, our heart feels a little more contracted, almost like a dark cloud is following us around wherever we go.
When we have unprocessed grief we’re also less present to the beauty of the natural world and less present to the people around us.
There’s a saying, “hurt people hurt people.”
And that’s the tragedy of life-disconnected, life-alienated thinking and language (the opposite of NVC):
When we’re most needing love and support — in other words when we’re most hurting emotionally — is when we tend to act in ways that make it least likely that we’re going to get the love and support we need.
When we’re most hurting we tend to lash out or withdraw. Much of that comes from unprocessed grief.
Hurt people hurt people because there’s all this unprocessed pain, which includes many things in addition to people’s temper being shorter.
When you don’t process your grief your self-care suffers, and you can more easily damage your relationships.
Why is Grief Work Important?
One reason we avoid grief work is that it’s uncomfortable.
However, it’s as human an activity as weddings, funerals, eating, talking, and connecting with people.
We celebrate and we grieve. It’s a human thing.
Though it’s uncomfortable, when we allow ourselves to do our grief work, it creates more space inside us so that more joy can come in later.
Your capacity for joy is limited by your capacity for grief — or is supported by it.
When you free yourself from the heaviness of unprocessed grief, you liberate a lot of mental and emotional energy for other things that are also important.
Unhealthy Ways to Deal with Grief and Loss
What is the difference between Grief Work and “Wallowing”?
First of all, wallowing is not an observation. It’s a subjective evaluation of what somebody’s doing. It has a judgement in it. But what people call “wallowing” is being stuck in grief in a way that we’re not moving forward or not breaking through.
There are a lot of reasons why we might see the phenomenon that we call wallowing. It’s possible that in some cases the person doing this might want to reinforce the story they have. One thing they possibly gain from this is that, at least in their own mind, they get to be right.
“Being right” is not a universal human need, so underneath being right are so many other possible needs. In some cases it’s acceptance or even self-acceptance. But that’s sometimes what happens; we get attached to a story in which we are justified in feeling what we’re feeling because we perceive others to be victimizing us.
Author Caroline Myss coined the term “woundology,” defined as how we gain power in social situations through our woundedness. Though this is not an NVC term, we use it here to add clarity to the discussion on wallowing.
It’s possible that somebody who has been through trauma can attach to it as part of their identity, and then use that woundedness or pain to try to gain power in social situations. “You can’t contradict me! After all, I’m the one who’s suffering more!” That’s an example of woundology which is similar to what people might call wallowing — though there are many variations!
The biggest difference between wallowing and grief work starts at the level of intention. In grief work I’m looking to go through and process the grief rather than wanting to stay in in a place of pain to prove some point myself or somebody else.
Grief work is not about attaching to a story. In grief work, I’m allowing myself to feel the feeling(s) that I’m feeling — whether it’s sadness, disappointment, remorse, sorrow — and I’m allowing them to flow and pass through me. I’m not attaching to them, I’m not pushing them away, and I’m not wanting them back when they pass.
Using NVC for Life-Connected Mourning
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg used to talk about life-connected grieving and mourning. Life-disconnected grieving and mourning happens when we’re connected to the judgmental thoughts about who was wrong or whose fault it was. Despite the feelings, we’re connected to the story about whose fault it is. It’s very easy from this mindset to then go into punitive justice or looking for some form of vengeance or retribution. Hurt people hurt people, remember?
In life-connected mourning, I’m present to the feelings that are flowing through me but I’m staying connected to the universal human need underlying them.
For example, imagine I have the enthusiastic intention to contribute, but then somebody gives me feedback that my attempts resulted in the opposite. If this happens, I might feel a lot of disappointment and sadness.
In life-connected mourning, I let myself feel the disappointment and sadness and I’m present to it, but I also make sure that I’m connected to the need called contribution. I can mourn that in this particular circumstance contribution wasn’t met or satisfied. If I stay with it, I can reach the point where I’m able to clearly distinguish in my consciousness between the pain of the unmet need and the beauty of the need itself.
The need itself, the energy called contribution, is a beautiful energy. It just happens that in this situation it wasn’t fulfilled, so I feel disappointment and sadness. That would be an example of life-connected mourning. We feel the feelings but we stay connected with the deeper needs rather than being stuck in our judgmental or blaming thinking.
One of the barriers to entering grief work is the fear that it will never end. However, it does flow and move on. And it can come back, and for through again.
Rather than something we do, you can think of grief more as a capacity. Our capacity for grief allows us to healthily dissipate emotional energy rather than locking it up in our tissues, while at the same time opening us up to more joy.
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC & Grief
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg understood that mourning and celebration are actually different sides of the same coin. Why? Because there wouldn’t be grief or sadness if there weren’t something beautiful that we’re missing or which has been lost.
When we lose a family member we love, the reason there’s grief is because of the beauty of that relationship. A beloved pet, a place that is lost to natural disaster, some other major loss in our lives: the reason we feel grief is precisely because there was something so beautiful and wonderful about the thing that we’ve lost or that has changed.
Dr. Rosenberg taught us that by staying connected to the universal human needs we can avoid the old habit of blame, accusation, resentment, and disconnection.
Puddledancer Press Books on Grief and Grieving
PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and grief work.
NVC has shown time and again that human beings are capable of healthy emotional processing — both individually and with the support of others.
Our books on NVC and grief can help you:
- Create exceptional personal and professional relationships
- Offer compassionate understanding to others
- Know when and how to ask for that same understanding for yourself
- Prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts
- Speak your truth in a clear, powerful way more likely to lead to harmony than conflict
- Create mutual understanding without coercion
Whether you are a long-time student — or are brand new to NVC — PuddleDancer Press has the educational resources, including the books on grief and grief work, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.
Check out our catalog of books on grief… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!
Topic written by Alan Seid, a Certified Trainer, on behalf of PuddleDancer Press for use on www.nonviolentcommunication.com.
More information on Books related to Grief
NVC Grief Web Resources
Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Grief Articles
Click here for Marshall Rosenberg Grief Videos
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Grief Articles
Click here for Nonviolent Communication Grief Videos
There is a wealth of information on Nonviolent Communication – in articles and videos. Of course we endorse all of Marshall’s sharing’s, however, there are many transcripts and videos created by others. Due to limited resources we do not verify the full accuracy of any particular video or articles created by others, even though there is plenty of wonderful and educational information on the web.