Mourning and Grief Work with NVC

How does Nonviolent Communication (NVC) Approach the topic of mourning?

First, let’s define NVC!

Nonviolent Communication is a process developed by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg that grew out of his attempts to understand why some people appear to enjoy violence and others derive the deepest joy from being of service to others.

While studying with Carl Rogers he was intrigued by the notion that authentic human connection can be healing. From this understanding, he set out to discover the basic elements in thought, language, communication, and the use of power that can most contribute to a high quality of connection.

NVC is premised on the notion that all people share Universal Human Needs. These are, at the same time, the conditions necessary for life to thrive in any human regardless of culture or geographic location, and also core human motivators. Dr. Rosenberg used this term, needs, to describe variations of this life energy as it shows up in any given person, moment-to-moment.

From the perspective of NVC, if you can distill any human conflict to the underlying needs, then people will be able to more clearly see each other’s humanity. When this happens, conflicts are more easily resolved.

By strengthening our self-connection, empathic listening, and ability to be real and authentic — we can prevent and resolve conflicts, and contribute to meeting everyone’s needs without violence.

NVC is no panacea — as it requires time and diligence to use fluidly in challenging situations. And yet — it significantly increases peoples’ ability to connect with themselves, each other, and to work harmoniously in teams.

How does NVC define mourning?

At the simplest level, mourning is when you feel how you feel when your needs aren’t met.

However, in NVC we distinguish between the type of mourning that involves blaming others, and what Dr. Rosenberg called “life-connected mourning.”

Life-connected mourning is when you are present with the feelings flowing through you while at the same time staying connected to the underlying needs. As you stay with the feelings and needs — rather than any thoughts or stories involving blame, judgment, criticism, wrongness, or punitive retribution — something remarkable tends to happen: at some point you are able to differentiate between the pain of the unmet need and the beauty of the need itself.

For example, let’s say that you do something in an attempt to contribute, but receive feedback that someone who matters to you felt hurt in relation to your well-intentioned action. It’s likely that you would feel some uncomfortable feelings, for example sadness or disappointment. If you are able to notice that the source of those feelings is your need for contribution, that in this circumstance was unfulfilled — rather than any stories of your or the other person’s wrongness — then you are going through life-connected mourning. You are allowing yourself to mourn, while staying connected to life, in this case your need for contribution.

This is the essence of how NVC approaches mourning.

Mourning when a loved one dies

One perspective on death is that we don’t die ‘out’ or ‘away’ — rather, we die into the Universe and each others’ hearts.

A beautiful way to remember a loved one is to communicate about their life in a way that celebrates how they touched or contributed to the lives of others.

This can be a potent way to heal through the mourning process — after all, the reason there is mourning is because there was so much beauty there to begin with.

You can use NVC to remember a loved one and communicate about their life by emphasizing specific things they said or did, what needs of yours that contributed to, and how you feel about it.

Dealing with the death of a loved one can be very challenging.

NVC helps you cope by reminding you to put your attention on the needs rather than any stories that take you into blame, judgment, or criticism. If those stories are there, NVC helps you translate the painful messages into feelings and needs. When you do this, it’s not that the pain suddenly goes away or disappears. The quality of the pain changes.

The pain that comes from violent thinking about who is wrong or who is to blame, has a different quality than the pain we feel when we are connected to needs. The latter Dr. Rosenberg referred to as a “sweet pain.”

When you are able to communicate your pain in this way, it makes it easier for others to be with you in compassion and care. At times, you and others can even hold space for the grief together.

This “co-holding” of grief can add another layer to personal and
collective healing.

Mourning with the aid of NVC can ease the difficulty in how to deal with the loss of a loved one.

When mourning is filled with judgment and blame it’s harder to move through the pain in a way that is healing.

The old pattern is to seek someone to blame, and then exact some form of vengeance or retribution.

NVC makes it clear that this only leads to lose-lose outcomes in which no one’s needs are ultimately satisfied.

The process of life-connected mourning is not the only way NVC helps us ease the difficulty of dealing with the loss of a loved one.

Clear requests are another — particularly when we allow ourselves to ask for the support for which we are yearning.

In some places there is a cultural myth that we must go through difficult times alone. This is both false and dangerous!

Mourning in community, or with the support of others, can offer additional dimensions to our healing.

The Only Constant is Change: Mourning Life’s Many Losses

Students of Buddhism know the “First Noble Truth” of the Buddha as the universality of misery and suffering, or simply discontent and dissatisfaction.

In NVC terms we would think of this as the universality of unmet needs. It is unavoidable to go through life without experiencing at least some moments in which our needs are not fulfilled! And this appears to be a universal experience.

Remember that the reason there is grief and mourning is precisely because there was something beautiful, or positive, or meaningful.

We will continue to find beauty and meaning throughout our lives. A common tendency is to become attached to the way things are — and ultimately things do change.

Any time a situation we like shifts, we have an opportunity to do life-connected mourning!

A job loss can bring a great deal of grief and stress, depending on the circumstances. The needs involved be the opportunity to contribute, the sense of community that came with that job, or the perception that your ability to provide for your family is at risk!

Retirement can also be a very painful and disorienting transition during which people lose touch with precisely the needs around meaning and purpose, contribution, and community. Sometime people retire and say things like, I’m busier than ever. They have
reconnected with a deeper purpose than what their job gave them, and that keeps them engaged in life. And yet, for others, retirement is filled with depression, isolation, and loneliness.

When relationships end — or transition — is another life circumstance in which people can fall into despair or simply deep sadness. The loss of that beautiful connection filled with love, satisfaction, care, and companionship — is filled with pain.

In some cases people realize that they have not, and probably will not, achieve some long-held dream or aspiration.

In other cases, you may have taken an action you later regret.

In all these situations you have a choice: stay in narratives about someone being wrong and to blame — and therefore find yourself in anger, shame, guilt, or depression — or shift into a consciousness and language of Universal Human Needs and allow yourself to mourn in a healthier and more restorative way.

Life-connected mourning is still painful, but it is not caustic. Thought patterns of blame, victimhood, or self-recrimination take us away from the type of healing that life-connected mourning
moves us toward.

The value of grief work

It’s easy to avoid the grief and mourning process because it can be uncomfortable.

However, you store unresolved grief in your body.

When you don’t allow yourself to grieve and mourn, you experience more heaviness, you are less present to the people around you and to the beauty of the natural world, and you are less energized in a way that allows you to enjoy life.

When you do allow yourself to grieve and mourn you are clearing out space inside you for more joy to come in later.

Your capacity for joy is limited — or supported — by your capacity for grief.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC and Mourning

Dr. Rosenberg clearly understood the expression “hurt people hurt people.”

He taught tens of thousands of people that without empathy for their pain people are left mostly with their old, reactive patterns.

When we are experiencing emotional pain — in other words, when we most need people’s love and compassion — that is when we tend to act in ways that make it least likely to receive others’ love, care, and compassion!


Because the old pattern is that when we are hurting we either lash out or withdraw.

Through his workshops, audio recordings, and videos, Marshall Rosenberg has helped millions of people learn healthier ways for how to cope with their pain — less costly for them, the people around them, and the world.

Rather than approaches that perpetuate punitive cycles of violence, Marshall Rosenberg’s teachings have contributed tangible pathways to true healing.

“Before I die, I want to cry all my tears and laugh all my laughter.” — Marshall Rosenberg

PuddleDancer Press Books on NVC and Mourning

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 mourning and grieving in life-connected, life-serving ways.

When we mourn and grieve in alignment with NVC, we are less likely to lash out at others in our pain, thus reducing violence in the world.

Our books on mourning 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 mourning, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.

Check out our catalog of books on grief work and mourning… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!