Once again, and you may be able to say it with me this time: these phases are organized for the benefit of the clinician. They are not set in stone and the patient will likely not feel these things in order, or one at a time. They might, but they might not. Grief is individualized.
Professionals put bargaining into the third phase because of the extensive work that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross did with death and dying. It doesn’t just apply to death or dying, either. This phase can be seen in grief over the loss of a job, a divorce, or any other loss one can imagine.
Bargaining happens the moment someone says they would “give anything to X,” where X is the former condition prior to the loss. Those who believe in God will bargain with their deity: I will do charity work for the rest of my life if only you’ll take away this disease. Atheists or non-religious folk may present with: If I had a second chance, I’d never tell Lucy she needed to lose weight.
There is a lot of wishful thinking in bargaining. It is natural, and it will pass.
Bargaining from the Patient’s POV
The patient is often feeling desperate in this situation. They have been given their ultimatum, the “no way out but through” feelings are piling up. They cling to the idea that there is some kind of “trick” that will reverse the undesired condition. He or she will make deals, either with a deity or with the target of loss. Those who are not prone to superstitious thinking or have a belief system may find themselves searching for answers through either science or religion. Bargaining may manifest itself then as “I’d do anything to get X back.”
Bargaining from the Therapist’s POV
With a terminal illness, he or she may express feelings of being trapped. Because of this, the patient will bargain as a way to assuage and mitigate these feelings. Your work as a therapist is to check for suicidal ideation/homicidal ideation and ensure the patient is not turning to any former addictive pitfalls. Additionally, as the therapist you need to allow the patient to explore bargaining however they choose, whether they’re an atheist who asks God for a sign, or whether they’re begging anyone who could help to make things “back the way they were.”
As long as the behavior isn’t self-destructive or destructive to another, it’s best to let it play out as it plays out and help them move forward.
What this Means for You, the Writer
If you’re writing out the bargaining phase, be sure to capture those feelings of ‘no way out’ and your only resource is trying to barter to put things back to the way they once were. This can be bargaining with an ex to try to mend the relationship (which may or may not work), bargaining with a deity to bring back a loved one (which may or may not work depending on your story), or even questioning the order of the universe. I once heard a person say, “I want to build a time machine, go back, and tell X not to get in that car.”
That too, is a version of bargaining.
This is a painful experience for the character involved as all phases of grief are for mere mortals. How your character experiences the bargaining phase will be up to you and your story’s direction.
If you came here looking for psychological assistance, please contact your local crisis line. Dial 2-1-1 in the US for the United Way, or contact the Samaritans in the UK. For a list of international crisis lines, click here.
Good luck, and get writing.
Well that was the third heavy topic, I know, but there are only four more to endure, so brace yourselves. If you’re in need of some lighthearted things, check out my Facebook and Twitter. Or for some entertaining fiction that touches on this subject, grab a copy of Exit 1042.