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Bargaining - Five Stages of Grief

Bargaining your way out of facing a sudden or devastating loss is a normal response to the threat of being overwhelmed by emotional and sometimes physical pain. Bargaining is ranked as the third critical phase in the Five Stages of Grief model introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the revolutionary book “On Death and Dying.” Refined with co-author David Kessler, the five stages of grief model is at the cornerstone of many popular theories exploring the grieving process. Those who enter the bargaining stage (not everyone will) may find themselves trying to make deals or asking unanswerable “what if?” questions to protect themselves from the reality that this profound change will bring. Read on as Titan Casket discusses the bargaining stage of grief and what role it might play in someone’s grief journey. 

Table of Contents

  1. What is the Bargaining Stage of Grief? 
  2. What Occurs During the Bargaining Stage of Grief?
  3. Does Bargaining Only Follow the Anger Stage of Grief?
  4. How Can I Help Someone Cope During the Bargaining Stage of Grief

What is the Bargaining Stage of Grief?

Waves of fear and despair can wash over someone who has been given a terminal diagnosis, faced the death of a loved one, or found themselves in the midst of a divorce or other profound change. Anger may have passed and left the grieving person feeling defeated and wrestling with their new reality. The bereaved may try to bargain themselves out of the grief by offering deals to a higher power, the universe, or themselves. It’s their attempt to re-establish control over the helplessness they are feeling.

Guilt is also a frequent companion to the bargaining stage. When this is the case, the bereaved will harbor the belief that if they had only done one thing differently (arrived earlier, gone to the doctor sooner, worked harder, paid more attention to a spouse, etc.), the person, relationship, or job could have been saved. 

What Occurs During the Bargaining Stage of Grief?

If the bereaved is a religious person, the bargaining stage of grief may be marked with an attempt at deal-making or the offering of promises to a higher power. Someone might pray for a loved one to be healed while offering to be a better person, stop harmful habits, or be more generous. This type of bargaining can yield a temporary feeling of hope that somehow the situation can change for the better. Even those without specific religious beliefs may be compelled to offer a deal to the universe when faced with a terminal illness diagnosis: “If I survive this, I promise to ….”

“What if” questions are a normal response for someone in the middle of the bargaining stage of grief. The questions may even begin the stage, as someone might follow “What if I had gotten a second opinion?” with a promise to live a healthier lifestyle or get more frequent medical attention should they survive. “What if” is often a partner of guilt, as a survivor imagines the ways that they could have intervened to save a person who is dying or died. This is also true of those facing a sudden job loss or the end of a meaningful relationship. 

Does Bargaining Only Follow the Anger Stage of Grief?

For many people, the bargaining stage does follow a period of both denial and anger. However, grief is a unique experience for every person. In fact, the bereaved may start the grieving process in the bargaining stage. When faced with loss, the need to take control over the situation through the offering of deals or promises of change may be more powerful than any other impulse. And the guilt component of the bargaining stage of grief can be intense. When faced with a terminal diagnosis, it is not unusual to find yourself in a bargaining mindset and then feel fierce anger. Additionally, as the bargaining impulse ebbs, depression does not necessarily flow. The bereaved may move through the five stages of grief in a different order, experiencing the same stage more than once or skipping the next stage entirely on their way to acceptance.

How Can I Help Someone Cope During the Bargaining Stage of Grief?

As with each of the five stages of grief, those who are in the bargaining stage will benefit from a strong support network of friends, family, colleagues, and, if applicable, spiritual advisors. Listening as the bereaved works through “what if” scenarios, feelings of guilt, and the hope that accompanies deal-making is a crucial component of their healing process. Recognize that someone going through the bargaining stage needs to delay the powerful emotions of grief in order to protect themselves. While many people will eventually work through this stage to find a way to accept their new reality, some may experience prolonged periods of guilt. If those feelings of responsibility (or the belief that a bargain to change events can be struck) are preventing them from daily tasks or resulting in self-destructive behaviors, it is best to call on the assistance of a medical professional. 

The information provided above is not meant to replace expert medical or mental health advice. If you or someone you love is having difficulty coping with loss, please reach out to a qualified mental health professional.

Do you have other questions about any other issues relating to mourning and end-of-life services? Titan Casket is here to help you get the funeral you want at a fair price. Contact us in the chat window or here to get started.