What to Know About the Bargaining Stage of Grief

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If you’ve lost someone, you would probably be willing to give anything to bring them back. Alternatively, you may wonder whether being a better person, or doing something differently could have prevented the loss.

You may even experience these thoughts if you’ve lost something important to you, such as a business, a job, a friendship, a relationship, a physical ability, or a sense of control or independence.

You're not alone if you feel this way. Many people experience bargaining during their grief process, which is a natural reaction to loss.

In the bargaining stage of grief, people tend to negotiate or make deals as a strategy to manage their pain, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

This article explores bargaining as one of the five stages of grief, discusses what bargaining may look like, and suggests some coping strategies that may be helpful.

What Are the Five Stages of Grief?

The five stages of grief is a theory proposed by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-born American psychiatrist. The theory, which was published in 1969 in her book, “On Death and Dying,” says that people grieve in five stages, which are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

The theory offers us a way to conceptualize the grief process, says Dr. Romanoff. It helps us make sense of something difficult.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dr. Kübler-Ross’s theory has helped change the face of medicine, because death was a subject many physicians tended to avoid up until then. Dr. Kübler-Ross’s theory became well-known in academic circles as well as in popular culture.

However, more recent research shows that the process of grieving may not necessarily follow a set pattern of specific reactions over time. People react to loss in different ways and grief can be messy.

Therefore, Dr. Romanoff explains that a more current interpretation of the theory is that:

  • Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are some of the common reactions to loss.
  • People may experience these emotions at any time during the grieving process and not necessarily in any particular order.
  • Everyone may not necessarily experience all five of these emotions when grieving, as each person tends to have a unique bereavement process.
  • Factors such as the severity of and circumstances surrounding the loss, individual differences in personality and temperament, and cultural, spiritual, and religious beliefs can play a role in the person’s grieving process.

What Is Bargaining During Grief?

Bargaining is one of the stages of grief, or one of the experiences you may have if you’re grieving a loss. In this stage, you may find yourself negotiating with yourself, with people around you, with fate, or with a higher power to try and mitigate or undo your loss.

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Bargaining is a defense against the feelings of helplessness experienced after a loss. It happens when people struggle to accept the reality of the loss and the limits of their control over the situation.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Dr. Romanoff explains that bargaining-type thinking may apply to the past or the present: 

  • Bargaining in the present: People may try to make a deal with themselves, or with a higher power for those who are spiritual or religious, under the condition that if they act in a particular way, they might feel better or the situation may improve.
  • Bargaining over the past: People may ruminate over ‘what if’ situations and wish to go back and change the past in the hopes of preventing the loss.

Characteristics of the Bargaining Stage of Grief

These are some of the characteristics of the bargaining stage of grief:

  • Feeling guilty or ashamed of your thoughts or actions
  • Feeling scared, insecure, or anxious
  • Ruminating over what could have been
  • Holding yourself responsible for the circumstances
  • Punishing yourself
  • Worrying and overthinking things
  • Judging yourself and others
  • Making comparisons to others’ circumstances
  • Trying to predict the future and assuming the worst
  • Wishing or praying for a different outcome
  • Thinking or saying “What if…” or “If only I had…” or “If I do this then…”

These are some examples of the types of thoughts you may have during the bargaining stage of grief, according to Dr. Romanoff:

  • Offering to be a better person, to help others, or to make donations as a way of dealing with and managing the pain of the loss.
  • Negotiating with fate, a higher power, God, or the universe. 
  • Wishing for miracles to negate the loss.
  • Bargaining about the past and wondering if the loss wouldn’t have happened if you did certain things differently. For instance, you may think: “If I stopped by his house that night, he would still be here,” or “I gave up on the relationship too quickly, if only I had tried harder, we would still be married.”

Coping With the Bargaining Stage of Grief

Dr. Romanoff shares some strategies that can help you cope with the bargaining stage of grief:

  • Normalize bargaining in grief: Bargaining is a way for people to hang on to hope, which is what many people need while they are grieving. Bargaining tends to decrease over time as acceptance of reality starts to sink in.
  • Give yourself time: With time, your pain will likely become more manageable, and the idea of accepting circumstances outside of your control may be more tolerable. For some people, however, grief remains extremely challenging even years after a loss. If you're not experiencing any relief, it's advisable to talk to a doctor or mental health professional about your symptoms.
  • Avoid ruminating over these thoughts: A good way to cope during this stage is to try to get perspective and emotional distance from these thoughts, instead of perseverating over them. It can be helpful to share these thoughts with a loved one who can help you rationalize them.
  • Note down your thoughts and feelings: It can be a good idea to write down your feelings, wishes, and bargains, and reflect on them so you can become more aware of your true feelings and motives for these thoughts, instead of getting caught up in them.
  • Shift your focus: People are best able to move on from this stage when they decide to shift their focus from what they cannot control to everything that they can, as they begin to make changes in their lives that are more productive for them to move forward.
  • Get help if you need it: If you find yourself caught in a spiral of guilt and blame, or if your grief is overpowering you to the extent that you cannot function even if weeks or months have passed since your loss, it can be helpful to seek treatment from a mental health professional. There are also support groups for grief that you may find helpful.

A Word From Verywell

Grief can be a difficult and painful process, and you may find yourself wishing against all odds that there's something you can do to make things better. With time however, you will be able to accept the loss and focus on the things that are within your power to control, so you can start to move on with your life.

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8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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