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Five stages of grief: stage three – bargaining

Five stages of grief diagram

The ‘five stages of grief’ outline the types of emotions commonly experienced by people coping with grief. If you have recently lost a loved one, people may have talked to you about the five stages as a way of understanding the many complex emotions you are experiencing. The stages are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Bear in mind that these stages are not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ guide to grief. It is very unlikely that you will progress through each stage in order, or even that you will experience every stage. Your grief is entirely unique to you; the five stages are just a useful way to talk about how grief might show itself.

What is bargaining?

Bargaining is when you wish, pray, or hope that your loved one will be saved in exchange for something, usually you changing your behaviour. It can happen before a loss, if you know that your loved one is very ill, or after a loss, in an attempt to save them. Thoughts of bargaining can occur any time after the loss and may resurface long afterwards.

Bargaining is something that can happen only in your mind, completely unspoken to anyone. Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who came up with the five stages, says: “Most bargains are made with God and are usually kept a secret or mentioned between the lines or in a chaplain’s private office.”

In its most basic form, bargaining is the exchange of one thing or act for another. Examples of bargaining could be as follows:

  • “I swear, if I could just get her back, I’ll never drink again.”
  • “If I could spend just one more day with him…”
  • “God, if you bring them back, I promise I will do anything you ask. I’ll devote my life to your service.”
  • “If I hadn’t gone to the shops, I would have found her sooner.”
  • “If only I had listened to him, this never would have happened.”
  • “If only she had been late for the bus, then she would have been safe.”
  • “Please, doctor, you have to help him. I’ll do anything.”

Even though many of these attempted bargains are physically impossible – you cannot turn back time or bring back someone who has passed away – they are natural ways of trying to rescue the loss and change it. Even the bargains for the past (“If I had visited on Tuesday instead of Wednesday, she wouldn’t be gone now”) are an attempt to discover a reality where your loved one has not passed away.

Why does it happen?

In the most obvious sense, bargaining is your attempt to have more time with your loved one. Even though you know, logically, that this cannot happen, the depth of your love for them causes you to try anything to save them, even pray to a god you’ve never prayed to before, or plead with the universe to bring them back.

However, bargaining is not just a simple tactic to change what has happened. As Kubler-Ross says: “Psychologically, promises may be associated with quiet guilt.” With every bargain there is the implication that if you had already done that thing you are promising, your loved one would be fine.

For example, if you have secretly promised God that you will donate to charity, or devote your life to the church, this may be a sign that you feel guilty – that somehow if you were a better person, this terrible loss would not have happened to you.

Equally, you might be thinking something like: “If only I had taken her to the hospital sooner, she wouldn’t be gone.” Again, this is partially caused by guilt, or a sense that your actions might have contributed to them passing away.

When is it a problem?

Bargaining is a common part of the grieving process and, like other stages of grief, it should not be rushed through. It is important to understand why you are experiencing it and not to pressure yourself to get past it too much.

However, bargaining can sometimes lead to obsessive thoughts. You may find yourself analysing everything that happened in the lead up to your loss in an attempt to find out who or what was the cause. This train of thought may be illogical and time-consuming. For example: “If I hadn’t stopped to get petrol, I wouldn’t have seen that there was a sale on – I wouldn’t have spent half an hour in the shop, I would have gone home instead. If I’d have gone home earlier, I could have called an ambulance sooner. We could have been at the hospital much sooner, perhaps early enough to save him.”

To a certain extent, these type of thoughts are common and must be worked through in your own time. If, however, you find yourself repeatedly obsessing over what could have been done or how you can change things, this may begin to have a significant impact on your mental health if it continues for an extended period of time.

If there is a particular thought that you are struggling not to think about, if thinking it over takes up most of your day or prevents you from doing daily tasks, consider talking to a counsellor or therapist. Bereavement support organisations will be able to help you find counselling and therapy sessions local to you.

How do you move past it?

Like so much about grief, the bargaining stage cannot be rushed. It is your mind’s way of exploring every possibility of your loved one being saved. Therefore, it is important that you work through it so that eventually you will come to understand that they are gone.

The best thing you can do is express any bargaining thoughts you are having, either by writing them down or talking to someone you trust, like a counsellor or close friend. This may help you make sense of them and understand what you are feeling.

Unfortunately, working through your desire to bargain will mean coming to terms with some painful truths. This can be one of the most difficult parts of grieving, as you will probably not want to accept that your loved one is gone. Even if you are trying to heal, on some level a part of you will not want to face the truth. In this way, bargaining is closely linked to denial and you may experience them together.

As you work through bargaining and begin realising that your loved one is gone, be aware that you may experience feelings of depression, the fourth stage of grief. It is important that you get support during this stage, either from those around you or a counsellor.

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