The 5 Stages of Grief – # 3 Bargaining

The third stage of grief is bargaining. The bargaining stage becomes a coping tool with the onset of bad news. Erika Krull, MSEd, LMPH, in her blog, What Happens in the Bargaining Stage of Grief (6/30/2021) writes, “The bargaining stage of grief can feel like despair and anxiety rolled into one. Your mind is trying to wrestle with the truth, learning to let go of one reality and move toward another. This stage is the result of your struggle to regain a sense of control as you grieve.” 

If your pet has received a terminal diagnosis from a veterinarian, you understand how the bargaining stage of grief works. Bargaining is a stage of grief where deals are made with a higher power to affect the outcome in a way you can accept.

When people receive unexpected bad news, they often turn to a higher force for relief, bargaining with an entity they believe has the power to change or delay an outcome. People will promise a myriad of things to avoid what is happening. For example, you might say, if you do this one thing for me,

  • I’ll become a better person
  • I’ll stop behaving in ways that are not in your favor 

If that doesn’t work, then:

  • We plead – This isn’t fair!
  • We beg – Don’t let this happen, please!
  • We promise – I’ll do better next time, I swear!

Those are just a few examples of bargaining. What are some of your bargaining promises? Bargaining is a coping mechanism the fragile psyche resorts to when it receives upsetting news or when faced with circumstances believed beyond its control. The idea that we’re going to lose our precious pet is such an emotional upheaval, we’ll promise just about anything for that not to happen. 

It’s important to remember that bargaining is a normal reaction learned early on in life. If you have or have spent time with children, you know they learn to bargain, like experts once they understand the difference between right and wrong. Bargaining happens multiple times a day without most people even knowing they’re doing it. How many times have you bargained for an outcome you wanted? 

As a counselor, I never discourage clients from the bargaining stage, albeit bargaining does have its limits. Together, we discuss their use of it so they can acknowledge it. Then, we explore what situation they’re resisting and other ways to cope.

I suggest to my clients who are avoiding emotional situations through bargaining to start with being more understanding of their circumstances by:

  • Being patient – bargaining is a natural reaction learned in childhood during stressful times
  • Acknowledge bargaining is a learned behavior to cope
  • Go ahead, bargain – maybe faith in a higher power will be helpful during this difficult time
  • Know when to pull back to explore resistance to the emotional reality of the situation
  • Look for alternate ways to cope 
  • Reach out for help. There is no reason to feel scared alone

Bargaining is not a harmful reaction; in fact, bargaining is quite common. A problem arises when people stay stuck in the bargaining stage too long to the point it is affecting their ability to make rational decisions. Another concern for being mired in the bargaining stage too long is that it can lead to depression. Depression is the fourth stage of grief. More on that stage in the next blog.

Be kind to yourself.

Wishing you peace in your heart,


Image courtesy of Ryan Stone

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