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

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.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • This reallly sucks! I am sooo sorry you guys lost a friend last year… you have been there for me sooooo long I didn’t even see it till now…. its a huge stuggle when u feel that way… I know cause I have to deal with it… hmmmm some of the things u listed on ur blog… I can relate to…some I can talk about some I am not ready to… thank u for this post…. #heartbroken #sad #regrets

  • Yes…the “if only I” and the “if only they” thoughts continue to mess with me…I think some of it is a little bit related to waiting to see what God is up to in our lives. It is so stinkin’ hard to wait in silence with empty hands for however long it takes for God to bring to us the next baby step in our journey out of grief. The deal is that you know it when it comes…but you have to be present and watchful enough to see it. Lord, have mercy….

    • yeah, the volume on them can get higher at different times and it is so stinking hard to wait in silence…peace to you from here to there.

  • Thanks for this and the other posts on grief, Kathy. Excellent stuff. It was causing me to reflect on my relatively light experience of losses and grief, tho I’ve had some very tough times… a couple bouts with circumstances or just inner angst that resulted in brief depression and feelings of despair. But i know emotions can be so incredibly painful for extended periods for many, and for almost anyone given certain types of losses.

    One of the biggest frauds perpetrated by many Christians, including leaders, is that if one just has a strong faith or knows how to surrender to God one won’t have to feel intense anger or have grief move into depression…. Or the corollary that “I don’t know how people deal with [x, y, or z] without the Lord’. In my experience, people without a particular religious faith generally cope about the same way that various Christians do… sometimes poorly and sometimes remarkably.

    • thanks, howard. i appeciate your sharing. i completely agree, that a huge disservice done to so many of us in our faith is that good Christians don’t feel intense anger or lean into depression. i really like your last sentence, too, and that feels really accurate.

  • Loss of a 30-year long cross-gender friendship: I don’t think there has been a day gone by in two years that I haven’t torn myself up about why she turned, slammed the Facebook door, and ran.

    I coulda should woulda acted differently if I had to do it over again. Dang!

    But we, my wife and I, did what we prayerfully thought best at the time.

    And I have come to realize that, sometimes, that is all that matters. Second-guessing doesn’t work.

    My frustration, guilt, and shame has slowly turned to compassion. We helped her safely escape a creepy, abusive marriage, and maybe that was the end of our role. Our love for her continues. We will not turn and walk away. We continue to face her as she walks further into the distance. Our hope and prayer is that she will eventually yearn, once again, for the unconditional love we have to offer without being so frightened by it.

    And maybe that’s a little of how God feels when we turn, curse, and run from His Love. Bargaining or not, He is waiting with open, no-questions-asked, arms.

    • oh that hurts so much. it reminds me of how sometimes things are for seasons and yet knowing that doesn’t make the loss of that season any less painful but it is a reminder of everything always being in flux.this is also the pain of in the trenches relationships and oh how i’ve been hurt and sad before, invested so much and then have things radically change. it’s so healing when sometimes things come full circle and many years later the phone rings or an email arrives with a message of hope or healing. but sometimes it doesn’t happen that way and letting grief and sadness turn into compassion is a beautiful thing. peace to you both.

  • So good. For me, the serenity prayer feels really personally applicable in the bargaining stage. All the time I think what if I had __ in my family, in my trauma, in my story, would I feel the same level of ache? What if God had intervened, at, I don’t know, any year of my life, would I feel less crazy? Because I know that that is a road that leads to nowhere #fouryearslatergotit and have been trying to practice self-compassion instead. It is way easier to tell a teen in session to make a list of things they can change, and one that they can’t. So the truth is that bargaining in my life looks like accepting what is #butiwillstillpoutda***

    • thanks, stacy. yeah, that part in there about accepting this sinful world as it is, not as i would have it is one of my favorite lines. so many good things in there and so hard to live into. #griefisweird

  • Thank you. The slow and painful dance through these stages is so frequently skipped over both within and outside of the church. I can’t even number the ways I’ve spun myself through lengthy spirals of “if only”s… such simple questions that have the power to shape a sense of self. It’s hard and good to realize the danger in allowing the hoops created to prove “healing” in order to rejoin a church rather than being given support after deep loss may have stretched the bargaining to unhealthy lengths. Not that I didn’t know…just sometimes, the reminders must come again and again for the truth to sink in.


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