Common Expressions and Experiences of Grief: Bargaining

Bargaining is just another way of saying that we get what we want by giving the other person or persons what they want. In our daily lives bargaining may look like exchanging money for clothes, food, and other necessities, offering to provide your friends dinner if they agree to help you move, or agreeing to split your meal with a spouse at a restaurant if they split theirs with you.

However, when it comes to bargaining our loses, we rarely if ever get what we are looking for. When we have lost someone or something that we love, we may think to ourselves that we would do anything to get them back. That is bargaining. But the reality is that with more permanent losses (such as death, separation because of violence or war, or breakups/divorce) our bargaining cannot bring our loved ones back. Bargaining often looks like pleading with God or the Universe: “If you bring her back, I promise I will stop drinking,” or “Please let my child live. You can take me instead.” Although part of us knows that our bargaining cannot possibly work, another part of us likes to imagine a world where we could turn back time and make our situation different.

Bargaining is just another way that we try to gain control in the midst of our confusing and disorienting losses. We want to believe that if we had been better parents/spouses/friends/children, been more observant and aware, or been more cautious and careful we could have prevented our loss from happening in the first place. Some people put tremendous amounts of guilt on themselves for their losses, and hope that by bargaining with their loved ones or a higher power they will alleviate that guilt.

Bargaining doesn’t only look like pleading for things to change. It can also look like a compulsive need to control everything in our lives after a loss has occurred. We may become hypervigilant and protective of our family and friends, insisting that they don’t ever take risks in life. We may become extremely religious, attempting to get God on our “good side.” We may become incredibly picky about the details of ours and others lives: the food we can and can’t eat, the roads we can and can’t drive on, the entertainment we can and can’t listen to or watch, the people we can and can’t talk to. As is said above, these are all attempts to feel a sense of control in the midst of senseless pain and loss. It’s a way for us to “cover our bases,” believing that if we live perfect and cautious lives nothing bad could ever happen to us.

The reality is that loss will happen to every human being at some point or another in their life. We cannot turn back time and prevent it from happening. We will never be able to work hard enough to prevent it in our future, but like all responses to grief, it makes sense why we would try to bargain away our pain. If bargaining isn’t a part of your grief experience, that is normal too. We all respond to grief in our own unique ways, and all of our unique responses make sense for us.

One important consideration for those that are bargaining to relieve guilt is that sometimes our actions are responsible for the loss of someone or something that we love: neglectful or abusive behavior, injury or death caused by our own substance use, purely accidental occurrences. In these instances, it is incredibly difficult to not blame and shame ourselves. The reality is that some people never forgive themselves for being responsible for their own loss. Although the pain of being responsible for our loss can be devastating, we can also use it to push us forward in the future. This may look like getting sober, seeking our own therapy for the harm we’ve caused, or even fighting for causes that protect others from unnecessary and accidental harm.

If you realize you are trying to bargain your way through your grief, remember that it is a normal response to something that feels so out of control. Begin to find things in your life that you can control (ex. your responses to others, the way you talk to yourself, the way you spend your time and energy, etc.). And learn when it’s time to let go of control rather than attempting to protect everyone and everything in your life from harm. We have to strike a balance between being wise and being so afraid of future loss that we never take any risks at all.

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