Grief – It’s Not Just For Death

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

There is so much information out on the internet right now on ways we can adapt, evolve, and innovate with each other in our new realities. A dear friend of mine exclaimed she has connection overload! And me, well, I’m personally tired of everyone telling me what to do and how to be. What I need more than anything right now is to mourn. I need time to be sad about the freedoms I’m missing and space to be confused about what’s going to happen next month, let alone for the rest of the year.

Because the truth is we’re only about eight weeks into shelter in place. In the first episode of the new Neuroleadership Institute podcast series, Your Brain at Work, David Rock starts off describing the physiological response most of us are having during this global crisis. He explains that we are shifting from acute stress disorder, a psychological trauma that creates shock, into a stage where “we realize how hard this is, the adrenaline has worn off, and we have to deal with the pain.”

By Michael Held on Unsplash

According to the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model, emotional pain, whether it’s in the form of fear, anger, sadness, depression, anxiety, etc., is due to universal human needs not being met, such as connection or fun. It may not feel like it, but this pain is actually a helpful reminder that there are needs in our lives that are really important to us. NVC founder Dr. Marshall Rosenberg describes pain as a gift in his book The Surprising Purpose of Anger.

Many of us live the example of pain being useful with physical exercise — we literally put ourselves through physical pain/strain so we can do things like hold our 20-pound child for an hour, or build up our stamina and flexibility to endure the constant barrage of demands in the workplace.

By Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

The major stimulus of the pain many of us are enduring right now relates to COVID-19. Life is harder for everyone because this pandemic constrains and limits us. In our rush to make life better or “normal,” we may want to skip over the step of acknowledging our difficulty with this time and feeling the pain of that. Don’t get me wrong, all of the WhatsApp groups, Zoom gatherings, and Facebook messages are a beautiful gift, but let’s not distract ourselves and instead make sure we are also attending to the pain of what we’re all experiencing.

When someone dies, you probably don’t say, “That sucks. Now let’s be positive!” There’s an emotional process that you go through whether you want to or not. Grief is not something we ask for, and often it’s not something we are ready for even if on some level we know it’s coming. I think it’s important to learn from grief, to understand it, to sit with it. To ask the grief and pain we feel, “What are you trying to tell me? What is it that you miss?”

During a major life change such as someone dying or a pandemic, there is a mourning period. We need time and space to be sad about what we’ve lost, whether that’s our freedom, our job, our security, or even people we know and love.

By Noah Silliman on Unsplash

Pain is uncomfortable and many of us try to avoid feeling pain at all costs. It’s the reason why there is an increase in alcohol sales, video gaming, online gambling, etc., according to this Forbes article. But there’s value in feeling pain because the more we can learn to be uncomfortable, the more resilient we become. And the more resilient we become dealing with smaller stressors, the more adept and resourced we will be when dealing with the bigger stressors, like a global pandemic for instance! It may help to think of pain as one side of a coin and celebration as the other side. When we sit with pain long enough, listening to what it’s telling us, we learn something. We learn what we are mourning, what’s missing. We learn what human needs are so important to us, what we celebrate when we have it, that we’re willing to go to any lengths, including causing others pain, to bring awareness to it.

But how do we sit with pain? There are a lot of methods out there like EFT/tapping, journaling, empathy, and authentic relating, to name a few, that could work for different people. The way I sit with pain is through meditation and empathy; I notice and create a particular type of awareness around the pain, and then get help from a trusted empathy partner who knows how to support my journey through the stimulus and into the beautiful human needs.

Below is an exercise I invite you to try for 10 minutes. You are welcome to spend longer than 10 minutes, but I find that at least 10 minutes is enough time to experience the entire sequence.

Find a quiet space where you can work alone.

Step 1.) Acceptance. Spend 2 minutes focusing on your breath. Be aware that we do not tell the breath to go away. It comes and goes, and we accept that. It is a natural part of our existence and keeps us alive. Difficult emotions also are part of our nature. They, too, remind us we are alive.

Step 2.) Ask yourself the question: “What pain am I holding right now?” Journal about the answer for 3 minutes and read what you wrote.

Step 3.) After reading over what you wrote, ask yourself the question, “What needs are unmet?” For help, refer to this Feelings and Needs Sheet.

Step 4.) Once you identify the unmet needs, ask yourself, “Now, in this moment, what am I feeling?” and see what happens. Maybe you’ll cry or scream. Maybe you’ll notice thoughts come up that want to distract you from your pain, but keep coming back to your feelings. Let your body experience what it’s like to have unmet needs. Remember these feelings will pass.

Step 5.) Now take a look at the beautiful needs you are so longing to have. Let your mind wander to any times when these needs were met and feel into just how important these needs are to you. Trust that they will be met again.


Kat Nadel has been teaching NVC since 2015. She works with busy professionals to change the way we do business, from transactional to more personal.