The third stage, bargaining, follows the anger stage very naturally. The normal reaction to the helplessness and vulnerability that comes through loss is an attempt to regain control. There are several ways that most choose to pursue to attempt to rebuild structure in life. Some models of the stages of grief will substitute the word “negotiate” for the term “bargain” and will use the terms interchangeably.
Bargaining to Change the Outcome
Bargaining takes place within the mind by trying to explain the things that could have done differently or better. “If only we had gotten a second opinion.” “If only we could have taken her to the hospital sooner.” “If only I had treated Aunt Nancy better.” The bargain struck is not one that could actually be kept, but it assists in bringing more control by identifying what could have – or should have – been done to handle the circumstance more effectively.
If a person is religious or spiritual, the bargaining may actually take place with a higher power. “If you will bring this person back, I will be more faithful, give more to those in need, quit my bad habit.” When the person is dealing with the reality of his own death, in essence he is saying, “I know that I am going to die. If I promise to be better, will you give me a little more time?”
Bargaining to Change the Timing
Bargaining almost never finds a permanent solution. The logical truth is that even if one can “dodge the bullet” this time, death is inevitable. The bargaining process helps the individual accept this truth on an emotional and psychological level.
Counselors often hear the bargaining process play out in the office. The person who has learned of a terminal illness will seek time to “tie together loose ends.” They will postpone telling people of the illness while they attempt to repair damaged relationships. Some will even hope that by eliminating some bad habits they will be granted a few more months of precious time.
Bargaining during loss – with a spiritual being, with fate, or with whomever is seen to have influence on the outcome – is a way of stepping out of anger toward acceptance. By bargaining, the person is willing to concede the outcome, but attempts to do so by squeezing a few more moments of “normal” out of the turmoil that pounds on life’s door.
The individual is clinging to the threads of hope, however thin and worn the fabric may be. Breakthrough treatments in medicine or intervention by a spiritual being or force are seen as a source of a temporary suspension of the inevitable outcome.
If no bargain can be reached, the individual moves quickly to stage four, depression.