Bargaining is one of the five stages of grief. The five stages of grief is a model also known as the Kübler-Ross model after Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who coined the phrase in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying.
Although the Kübler-Ross model was developed to support terminally ill people in facing their imminent death, other types of mental health practitioners found it so useful that the model was adapted as a way of thinking about grief in general.
The five stages of grief as outlined by Kübler-Ross are:
This article focuses on the bargaining stage of grief – what it is, why it happens, and how to manage it.
What is the bargaining stage of grief?
According to the American Psychological Association, the bargaining stage of grief is characterized by an attempt to negotiate a deal with God or fate that would delay one’s own death or that of an important other, or that would mitigate or end other great loss or trauma.
What does the bargaining stage of grief look and feel like?
According to the University of Washington, the bargaining stage of grief can look like:
- Ruminating on the future or past
- Overthinking and worrying
- Comparing self to others
- Predicting the future and assuming the worst
- Perfectionism insecurity
- Thinking/saying, “I should have…” or ”If only…”
- Judgment toward self and/or others
It can feel like:
Bargaining can occur in two forms, present and past:
- In the present, individuals may make deals with themselves or a higher power (for those who are spiritual or religious) with the hope that if they act in a certain way, they may feel better or the situation may improve.
- Bargaining that focuses on the past includes the ways in which people may dwell on “what if” scenarios and wish they could change the past to prevent the loss.
What are the most helpful ways to manage the bargaining stage of grief?
When grieving, it is normal to use bargaining as a coping mechanism to hold onto hope. However, as time passes, acceptance of the reality may become more evident, and the bargaining may decrease.
Allow yourself time to heal and manage your pain. Accepting circumstances beyond your control may become easier over time, although for some people, grief can remain a challenge even years after a loss. If you do not find relief, seeking help from a mental health professional or doctor is recommended.
Avoid fixating on your thoughts and emotions during this stage. Instead, try to gain perspective and emotional distance from them. Sharing your thoughts with a trusted loved one can also help rationalize them.
Writing down your feelings, wishes, and bargains can aid in becoming more aware of your true feelings and motivations. This awareness can prevent getting caught up in these thoughts and help you cope.
To move forward, focus on what you can control rather than what you cannot. Making productive changes in your life can help in moving on from this stage.
If you are struggling with overwhelming guilt or grief, seeking help from a mental health professional or joining a grief support group can be beneficial.
What happens if you lose your faith after the loss of a loved one?
Religion and spirituality are naturally arising topics when dealing with a loss. They are complex and multifaceted, as they can provide comfort during difficult times, but they can also raise questions about faith when attempting to comprehend the loss. Grief can make it challenging to distinguish our emotions towards our faith, just as our faith can complicate our emotions regarding our grief.
Grief has a way of forcing individuals to confront their true selves by revealing their worldview and stripping away pretenses and masks. Suffering and tragedy often reveal the kind of faith that is already present within an individual, so a tragic situation for someone without faith may reinforce their doubts about God. In contrast, if someone approaches the same tragedy with faith, their faith can accompany them through the ordeal, becoming stronger in the process.
Grief is a profound experience that can alter your perception of reality and affect all aspects of life. When someone dies, grief can be powerful enough to shake the core values of anyone, which is often a confusing and misunderstood aspect of grief.
Religion is rooted in death, resurrection, and belief in the afterlife. These concepts are ingrained in religious teachings, and individuals with faith may have learned about death from an early age.
A crisis of faith is one of the most daunting experiences after a loss, regardless of one’s self-perception. Losing someone close can challenge beliefs about morality, way of life, and the existence of God. The questions that arise can include:
- How could God let this happen?
- What if everything is random and meaningless?
- What if my beliefs were a lie?
- Who am I without my faith?
- Why is my faith so easily shaken?
Although these questions may be new to first-time grievers, they are common among people of all beliefs. Trusting that everything will work out when nothing seems to be going right is not always enough.
People who are not religious may also experience an identity crisis. Although they do not base their beliefs on God’s existence, everyone has their own values that help them make sense of the world. Grief can upend these beliefs. For instance, atheists rely on rational thought, science, and logic, categorically rejecting the idea of a higher power. However, grief can cause even the most unwavering atheists to question their beliefs.
Experiencing a loss of faith after a loved one dies can be a daunting experience, but there is hope. It is common for people to undergo a shift in their beliefs during grief, but over time, most individuals return to their former convictions.
Given that loss and subsequent grief are one of the most profound experiences any of us will experience, it’s not surprising that going through the grieving process often results in some form of personal transformation. While death is never easy, adapting to loss can ultimately have a positive impact. Developing your own methods for coping with bereavement can help you face future challenges with greater resilience and emerge from the experience with a stronger sense of your own values.
Why the bargaining stage of grief may not be helpful
Bargaining is probably the most contested stage of the Kübler-Ross model.
In the context of the model being developed as a way to understand the process of how terminally ill people come to terms with their illness and impending death, bargaining does make sense. Most of us can relate to the concept of praying for a second chance or asking a higher power to intervene to help us in times of trouble. In the case of a terminal diagnosis, it is natural to want another chance to do things differently, perhaps relating to what choices you make in the way you live your life.
Bargaining is less relatable when it comes to the grief people feel when someone important to them has died. In 2007, the Yale Bereavement Study (YBS) was published, examining the stage theory of grief.
‘Yearning’ not bargaining
The YBS switched out bargaining for yearning, which is defined as a feeling of intense longing for something or someone.
Yearning was the most frequent negative psychological response reported throughout the study observation period (between one and 24 months post loss). Findings from the YBS demonstrate that yearning, not depressive mood, is the most significant psychological response to natural death.
Since 83.8% of the participants in that study were widows or widowers, most over the age of 60, it’s unsurprising that many of them yearned for their lost partner.
How long does it take to reach the yearning stage of grief?
The results of the YBS found that disbelief and yearning decline and acceptance increases between one and 12 months post loss. Similarly, from six to 24 months post loss, disbelief, yearning, anger, and depression decline, and acceptance increases.
The study highlighted that the death of a long-term spouse creates an incalculable amount of emotional energy. Those feelings are often accompanied by an overwhelming sense of missing the person and wanting the familiarity of their presence back. Missing someone who has been a constant part of your life for decades is normal and to be expected. Calling it a stage of grief suggests a time frame, causing them to wait for that stage to end which adds exponentially to their grief.
When does yearning become an issue for mental health support?
While the study suggests that depressive mood in normally bereaved individuals tends to peak at approximately six months post loss and does not occur prior to two months post loss. Findings elsewhere indicate that chronically elevated levels of yearning are a cause for clinical concern.
How to cope with the bargaining stage of grief
Although it’s a cliché to say it, time is a healer. For those in the initial stages of grief, there can be a desire to skip ahead to the future and bypass the most painful aspects of grieving.
There isn’t a way to avoid feeling strong emotions during grief, however. Trying to resist grief can actually cause it to feel stronger and more relentless, so there is an element of giving yourself over to grief. Allow yourself plenty of time to grieve, try to accept that whatever is happening for you is unfolding in exactly the way it has to, and know that every day counts.
Grief has a very real way of keeping you in the present and the past. But looking ahead to the future can be a way to begin to accept what has happened and to move towards a new life without your loved one. Take it step by step so as not to overwhelm yourself.
Know that bargaining is a natural part of grieving. Once you begin to process your loss and come through the bargaining stage, you may begin to feel other emotions arising such as sadness, guilt, anger or something else. Again, this is to be expected.
Does everyone go through all five stages of grief?
No. Some people go through some, but not all, of the five stages. Some never get to a place of acceptance. Grief is a complicated, difficult and unique experience, with everyone reacting to it in their own way.
There are other models of grief that people find helpful – these are mentioned in the ‘What are the five stages of grief after a significant loss’ article.
What should I do if I cannot cope with grief?
Help is out there for you if you feel that you cannot cope with your grief or that the ways in which you are coping are harmful. Equally, for some, grief can trigger a deep depression that can become entrenched.
Bereavement or grief counseling is available for those who need help in processing their loss. This type of therapy allows you to talk your feelings through with a professional who is experienced in this field, who can allow you the time and space to talk about your loved one and the emotions you’re experiencing. Don’t suffer alone.
The Center • A Place for HOPE is an award-winning treatment facility with over 37 years of leadership in mental and behavioral health. We are a top ten facility for depression treatment, meaning that our caring and experienced staff are well placed to provide you with professional excellence in a range of different treatment options.
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 Kübler-Ross, E. (2002) On death and dying ; questions and answers on death and dying ; on Life after death. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club.
 Maciejewski PK, Zhang B, Block SD, Prigerson HG. An Empirical Examination of the Stage Theory of Grief. JAMA. 2007;297(7):716–723. doi:10.1001/jama.297.7.716