bargaining: the what if’s and if only’s

kathyescobar faith shifts, healing, spiritual formation 12 Comments

bargaining chalkboardwe’re on day 3 of grief week and i have appreciated the comments & emails & thoughts that this has stirred up in different ways.  if you are just joining us, we started with denial.  then yesterday was a look into anger.  today, we move into the third stage that is part of any grieving process-bargaining.

this is the stage–and one we often come back to in our healing (remember grief is not linear)–where we look back with regret and wonder:

what if i had…

if only i had…

what if i had done this differently or that differently?  

God, i’ll do this if you’ll do that…

we replay all kinds of things in our head and want to rewind and do and say things differently.

it takes us back to a desire to be the ones who somehow made the loss not-a-loss, as if we had total control of it in the first place.

easter of 2013 one of our dear refuge friends took her life. suicide sucks on every angle, but there has been no way for the thought not to cross my mind & heart over the past year–what if i had picked her up on that snowy day? what if i had read through the lines of her phone call more accurately? what if we had the perfect safety plan post-hospital stay? elizabeth kubler-ross says that “guilt is often bargaining’s companion. the if only’s cause us to find fault in ourselves and we ‘think’ we could have done differently.”

bargaining was also a  huge piece of grief when i was healing from my past abortion. i had a crazy thought in my mind that somehow i could “pay back” what i had done by working harder, giving my all to God, doing-almost-anything-possible-to-make-up-for-the-loss.  yeah, it didn’t go too well, but i see it now as part of the process.  i needed to reckon with my guilt as part of the process and part of that was making crazy pacts with God and myself that didn’t help but was just part of my healing in the end.  none of these “okay, God, i promise i’ll..” or “if only i had…” set me free. over time i discovered my best hope was to allow myself to feel the magnitude of the loss, accept forgiveness, and move forward.

when it comes to church grief, oh goodness gracious do i have so many scenarios playing in my head about what i could have done, should have done, would have done differently.  the what if’s and the if only’s were consuming for a long time and still, after all these years, i sometimes still can’t believe it all happened and come up with the “why didn’t i?” that takes a little bit of time to cycle through.

as you think about the bargaining stage (there are many more eloquent and more-pure-to-the-textbook descriptions of bargaining to check out), reflect on your what ifʼs and if onlyʼs related to your loss, no matter what that loss is.  i added some that are about the other party & God, too, because i think they are things we think a lot during grief.

what are some ways you’d finish these sentences?

what if i had….

what if God had…

if only i had….

if only they had…

i wish i had..

maybe i can…..and then…

when we did this exercise at some of our stations, we used a sandtray. i thought i’d put one here just as an example to consider what you might write on it.

when youʼre ready, write whatever words or phrases come to mind related to this in the sand tray. 

sand tray help with frame

when youʼre done, imagine raking it as an act of remembering that these ways that we bargain are a natural part of the grieving process and arenʼt permanent or written in stone.

peace and hope to you as you process through some of your what if’s and if only’s as you grieve your own unique losses of people & dreams & church & health & life-as-you-knew-it.

they aren’t dumb or crazy. they are real and our best hope is to be honest about them.

tomorrow we are on the 4th movement in grief with the oh-so-fun stage of depression.