Grief is Decay

Grief, Loss and Regeneration in the Time of COVID-19 


April 2, 2020


The U.S. now leads the world in confirmed coronavirus cases,  (must we be #1 at everything?); 6.6 million people filed for unemployment benefits in the US alone in the last two weeks – shattering the previous weekly “record” of 695,000; and the death toll worldwide is close to 50,000. I've been numbingly reading statistics like these everyday but now COVID-19 has touched my personal life. My cousin and her husband are in the middle of their battle with COVID-19 and it is touch and go. She has a fever of 104, uncontrollable coughs, weakness and hallucinations, and her husband is in the ICU, in a medically induced coma, on a ventilator (yes, COVID-19 symptoms are mild for many but are very much NOT mild for many as well). Last week, my 90-year-old aunt in Taiwan passed away (not COVID-19 related as far as we know) but social distancing rules and travel restrictions are making a family funeral and honoring of her life impossible.

During this time I have also had the honor to be part of some of the most inspirational, optimistic, and visionary discussions with our worldwide regenerative community about how a crisis like this can be a catalyzing moment to demonstrate the need for the holistic, interdependent, multi-system, regenerative solutions many of us are working for every day. These conversations and connections have been vital for me during this time – thank you. AND at the same time my own words in these conversations have at times felt jarring, callous, hollow, and tone-deaf to the grief and loss I and many of us are personally experiencing in this moment.   

grief is decay – it’s essential for regeneration

I have been sitting in this tension and reflection this week, intuitively knowing that all of my rapidly changing and seemingly conflicting emotions and thoughts are valid and useful. One morning recently, I had one of those little whispers of insight, a soft tenuous voice in the back of my head say to me – “grief is decay – it’s essential for regeneration”. As a former counsellor, I am well aware of and a practitioner of the classic five stages of grief by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross - Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance. Her work was incredibly healing for myself and continues to help countless individuals work through death and loss every day. However, as I listened more to this little whisper, I began to think that grief is not just something to overcome and that its purpose is not to just accept death and loss, but that grief is in fact an essential part of the process of developing, growing, and evolving.​

in living social systems like an organization, it is not carbon and nutrients that must cycle, but information

In living ecosystems, we know that death and decay are vital to release and reorganize biochemicals and nutrients in a way that creates the conditions for new birth and growth. When a tree dies in a forest, it is only because of billion-year-old relationships with fungi that the tree decays, the wood breaks down, and its carbon and other vital nutrients are returned to the soil to give fertility to the next generation of trees. At nRhythm, we know that in living social systems like an organization, it is not carbon and nutrients that must cycle, but information. Information in the form of ideas, beliefs, processes, assumptions, and paradigms are the nutrients of a social system and it needs to go through this same life and death cycle to create Regenerative Organizations. We call this the Information Life Cycle and it is how our thinking, ideas, services, and processes change and evolve. We help organizations to recognize that without the death and decay of information we cannot regenerate our organizations and respond to change. I know this intellectually, but I realized this week that information is not just ideas and thinking and processes; it’s also emotions, feelings, waves of subconscious fears, daydreams, nostalgia, and wild utopic dreams and fantasies of a suddenly transformed society.   

grief is the emotional equivalent of fungi

Therefore, in a time of tremendous death and loss like the COVID-19 crisis, working with grief as a Regenerative Organization is not just managing our individual emotional responses in order to accept and “move-on” or return to some “normal” level of functioning. Grief IS the essential decay process; it is vital for regeneration. Grief is the emotional equivalent of fungi breaking down dead trees into vital nutrients in the soil that feeds new life. Grief is the gut biome of grazing herbivores around the world breaking down the nutrients of arid grasslands and trampling it back into the soil. If we deny this process as an individual and, more importantly, as an organization, then we get stuck, we do not develop and evolve. It is the same as removing grazing herbivores from grasslands; the grass turns grey and oxidizes, nutrients get stuck and do not get reincorporated into the soil and new growth is not possible.  

If we do not work with grief, our ideas, beliefs, and paradigms will be stuck, and our frameworks and solutions will become obsolete and irrelevant. However, if we consciously and honorably work with our grief, both individually and as an organization, then grief is the life-giving process of decay. We will consciously reorganize our ideas, beliefs, feelings, passions, assumptions, and dreams to unleash new possibilities, development, growth, life, and unlimited potential in our organizations and communities.   


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