What is Bargaining in Grief?

Jake Newby

| 4 min read

When grieving a loss – especially a sudden one – a person may cycle through the five stages of grief as they try to make sense of a panful situation. Those five stages are:
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance
Not everyone experiences the stages linearly and some may not experience every stage at all. But generally, bargaining comes third during the grieving process, and it’s important to identify so that you can help yourself or someone heal, should they ever experience it.
A person may feel like they are losing control during this stage. They may be unwilling or unable to accept a loss. Bargaining in grief is not just reserved for people wrestling with the death of a loved one; it may also occur during a breakup, job loss, or the loss of a physical ability.

Defining the bargaining stage of grief

During the bargaining stage, people negotiate with themselves or a higher power as a defense mechanism or pain management strategy. They may also harp on the past and get hung up on what they could have done differently as they try to reverse a loss. The bargaining stage is sometimes characterized by an individual’s inability to maintain a grip on reality. Pleading or begging can also occur.
This stage that can evoke a range of emotions, including:
  • Anger
  • Anguish
  • Desperation
  • Feelings of betrayal by a higher power
  • Guilt or survivor’s guilt
  • Resentment
  • Self-loathing
  • Shame

Common thoughts and examples of bargaining in grief

Wishful thinking, unrealistic expectations and prayers to a higher power are all common during the bargaining stage. While trying to negotiate through a loss or tragic situation, a grieving person might say things like ‘I’d do anything to get them/it back.’ Sometimes people negotiate by offering to be a better person if it means undoing the loss. They may say something like, ‘If I start doing X every day, will my mom be cured?”
This stage can also be characterized by “what ifs.” Say for example that someone’s sister was involved in a serious car accident while driving to pick up their parent for a get-together. That person might bargain by saying something like, ‘If only we would have driven together, she’d be OK,’ or ‘What if I insisted on picking her up first? None of this would have happened.’

Coping with the bargaining stage of grief

There is no timetable for how long the bargaining stage lasts. Its painful effect can impact someone’s mood, their quality of life, their relationships and their work performance. Grief is unique to every person that experiences it. Here are a few strategies to try:
  • Acknowledge and honor your grief: The sooner you can identify your grief, and your stage of grief, the sooner you can actively manage your uncomfortable emotions and begin the healing process.
  • Journal your feelings: Writing down your feelings can help you process grief-related emotions and diminish some stress. It may be tough to sit down with a pen in hand, but you’d be surprised how much better you feel once you do it.
  • Speak to a mental health professional or grief counselor: Therapy or grief therapy can be helpful for someone enduring a significant loss that has resulted in a major change in their life.
  • Join a support group: Online or in-person peer-led support groups can provide a space where people with shared experiences can talk and help each other heal. Your mental health professional can often facilitate this process or point you in the right direction.

When does grief turn into depression?

Symptoms of all stages of grief usually fade over time. But for a small group of people, intense feelings of grief can persist and negatively affect a person’s everyday life. This is known as prolonged grief disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association, prolonged grief disorder symptoms include:
  • Identity disruption (such as feeling as though part of oneself has died).
  • Marked sense of disbelief about the death.
  • Avoidance of reminders that the person is dead.
  • Intense emotional pain (such as anger, bitterness, sorrow) related to the death.
  • Difficulty with reintegration (such as problems engaging with friends, pursuing interests, planning for the future).
  • Emotional numbness (absence or marked reduction of emotional experience).
  • Feeling that life is meaningless.
  • Intense loneliness (feeling alone or detached from others).
Studies have found some elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) as effective in reducing symptoms of prolonged grief disorder. If you believe yourself or a loved one is experiencing prolonged grief disorder – and the above coping strategies do not work for you –speak with your primary care provider about CBT and other potential treatment options.
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