Bargaining: Grief’s Detour

Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a grieving person who is going through the bargaining stage of the process is to actually get what they are bargaining for, precisely because they aren’t thinking through the entire bargain clearly.

This is not usually a serious problem for people who are grieving over a death or other form of irreversible loss: what is desired can’t be manifested. Not even the illusion of it can be granted.

The deception that commonly arises out of grief over (seemingly) reversible losses, such as the end of romantic relationships, is that what is being requested can actually be had, when in reality there can be at best the illusion of it returned. Bargaining after breakups is like the dog returning to its vomit. The same thing that caused the vomiting, digested again in a new, even less desirable form, will just result in the same outcome in almost every particular.

I know several people who have remarried their ex-spouse after having divorced them, and I know countless people who have gotten back together with exes after breakups, and it rarely works. The reason for this is that the bargaining process that usually leads to the forced reconciliation doesn’t specify the terms of the reconciliation specifically enough. That is, the bargainer(s) are suspending disbelief about the causes of the fracture. This lack of dedication to reality only leads to a harsher form of disillusionment later on.

There is a woman I know, for example, who has been married for essentially all of her adult life, and her marriage has been in terminal decline for the last ten years. The marriage effectively ended a few years ago, but both she and her husband engaged in bargaining and are in a zombie relationship as a result, which is not healthy for either of them and is undoubtedly a tremendous barrier to spiritual growth in both cases.

The reason bargaining is so attractive is that it is perceived as a escape from the depression phase. People who have been through the depression phase before may be more prone to giving in to the allure of bargaining because they “flinch” at the sight of the oncoming depression, just the way you might stand outside of a cold shower because you can only think about the initial impact of the cold water on your back. In this case, though, bargaining is only a detour. It’s a longer path to the eventual acceptance, and it doesn’t even avoid the depression. It merely creates a second, parallel grieving process, this time over the bargain itself, and its likely failure.

Embracing the depression of grieving, then, is a practice in delayed gratification. It is a willingness to confront pain head-on today in order to avoid having more pain later.