The Grief Cycle, Stage Three: Bargaining

This blog post is a continuation of a previous Udall Shumway posting entitled “The Grief Cycle, Stage Two: Anger”, discussing the way individuals grieve when coping with a difficult experience.

Stage 3:  Bargaining

In the previous posts, we discussed how varying psychological defense mechanisms work in tandem to attempt to cope with a painful death or loss. When seriously threatened, the body (and mind) employ the ‘flight’ portion of Freud’s “Fight, Flight, or Freeze”, hoping to stiff-arm the reality of a devastating loss. Once the truthfulness of the event can no longer be ignored, the psyche often ‘fights’ the source of the pain via anger, as discussed in prior post.

When both ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ have been unsuccessfully utilized, the grieving individual enters a phase of internal ‘bargaining’, where one tries to mentally rewrite the past. Although this approach seems doomed to fail (and ultimately it is), many psychologists posit that this represents the ‘freeze’ portion of the aforementioned defense mechanisms. Just as it seems foolish to freeze in a life-or-death situation, the human psyche does cling to the hope that the threat can be redefined or ‘pass them by’.

This often takes the shape of “If, then” statements that are made, sometimes to another person but always internally. For instance, a person who might be grieving the sudden loss of a spouse to a car accident might think, “If only I had been in the car, then perhaps she wouldn’t have been in the wrong place at the wrong time…” Another example is after a divorce, where a husband might find himself feeling, “If I had been a more caring and compassionate husband, then maybe my marriage would not have tanked.”

The accuracy and truthfulness of these statements are ultimately irrelevant, but this stage is a critical one as a grieving individual moves towards full coping.

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