Grief Within the Arts: Bargaining
Updated: Jul 25
Bargaining “allows us to believe that we can restore order to the chaos that has taken over”.
Within the arts, I wonder if our bargaining heads are a bit like the Greek God, Janus? We seem to have one bargaining-face that is looking at the past, whilst our other bargaining-face stares into the future. As artists, we’ve both lost and are also in the process of losing. We’ve lost the immediate projects that we would have been doing, lights have gone out in venues, previous grants have been scrapped (to make way for emergency funding packages). But we are also looking to the future and, perhaps more worryingly, find an ocean of uncertainty staring right back at us. Perhaps you are experiencing a lot of anticipatory grief at the moment. What will the future of the arts look like after coronavirus? How will it/we survive, let alone thrive, in a profound state of economic depression that is looming on the horizon?
This may all sound terribly pessimistic, but I guess that's how it will sound when we focus upon the our loss and our grieving. So, for the sake of balancing, let’s remember to try to hold space for the voice of Optimism and Hope too. They can remind us that with any ending there is always a beginning. When winter comes and seemingly strips the earth of life, spring will come again and life will return. Whilst grieving, optimism and hope are important to nurture as we painfully journey towards acceptance of the losses. Just check in with whether your overt optimism is just sugar-coated-denial, as we can fool ourselves into dissociative positivity in order to not feel the hurt. Remember, it's okay to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
There are various (good-intended) arguments circulating on social media about how artists are using this neither-here-nor-there time as we sit and wait in social-distancing lockdown. Are you a “be-er” or “a doer”?* Some artists are zooming about creating online-art that is directly responding to a world being ravaged by coronavirus. This “unprecedented” (there’s that word again) time needs documentation for generations to come – and that’s what art does right? It’s our collective-social diary taking note of our lives. And then, there are other artists who are perhaps conserving their energy - like a bulb deep in dark wintry muck - barely doing anything, slowly cogitating on how they are going to grow into the “new-normal”… whenever that should begin.
What may be most important now is how we prepare ourselves and our fallow soil for the future. Does doing bring you energy and help you reflect and process? Or do you need to just rest and be for a bit (without feeling guilty) knowing that is your way of making sense of things? What can you do that looks after your own needs, whilst, from time to time, keeping an eye others too?
As our bargaining-face looks forward, the ways we are approaching things now can be seen as us bargaining against the anticipated losses ahead. “What if we do this?” “If I do this, perhaps this will happen…” We’re trying to save whatever we can. And maybe we’re just second guessing. But, like the wonderful spring we’re now in, perhaps we can also hope for an even better future. Maybe we can take some time to evaluate our artistic practices and step into the as-yet-unknown-new-normal, but emerge from this changed. As a vibrant dance-artist and I chatted today (via video call as he wandered down a canal tow-path and I sat at my desk), he exclaimed with wide-eyed optimism; “Perhaps there will be a renaissance?!” Perhaps we can come back even better; healthier, fairer, brighter, more inclusive.
Before we head into Kübler-Ross & Kessler’s five-stages-of-loss thoughts on bargaining, there are a few other “What ifs” and “If onlys” that come to mind. As we’ve not chosen to close theatres, and we’ve no choice but to stay at home (please, do stay at home whenever/wherever you can) we’re becoming all too aware of what was/is out of our control and how much little power we sometimes have. “If only Boris Johnson had locked the Nation down earlier”, “What if Dominic Cummings hadn’t put the economy first?”, “If only those in power had taken heed of the scientific warnings and predictions made years ago about how it was only a matter of time that a pandemic was going to wreck havoc on all our lives”, “What if the NHS / domestic violence charities / the elderly / the arts had been more financially protected?” There's that anger, right? We find ourselves caught in internal chat-loops, bargaining on behalf of others who do have more power than us. We bargain bi-proxy in an, often vain, attempt to try to regain some sense of control. This is a useful psychological pursuit to safe-guard us from profound feelings of helplessness and/or depression.
Okay, let’s head over to Kübler-Ross & Kessler as they take us through bargaining. As with denial and anger, read these words from a grounded position and a steady breath, be curious about how you resonate with them and where you don’t. And, as always, if you are suffering the loss of a loved one, I hope these words can be of some small support and offer some understanding in what must be such a hard time.
“Before a loss, it seems you will do anything if only your loved one may be spared. “Please, God,” you bargain, “I will never be angry at my wife again if you’ll just let her live.” After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. “What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others? Then can I wake up and realize this has all been a bad dream?”
We become lost in a maze of “if only…” or “What if…” statements. We want life returned to what it was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumour sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening … if only, if only, if only.
Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault with ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. [and here we’re plagued with if onlys about others… if only the arts were more protected, more valued. If only scientist and politicians had taken heed of the warnings and predictions made years ago – Bill Gates – If only Boris Johnson had locked us down earlier, rather than putting the economy at the heart of his decision making resulting in unnecessary deaths – Dominic Cummings. Bargaining is close to anger, and to guilt.] We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt. [we need to move to the future, spend time working on how that is going to look within the power we do have]
As Howard turned seventy-five, he was determined to keep himself and his sixty-six-year-old wife, Millie, in good heath. He had read somewhere that walking every day would keep them fit […]. Millie knew it was easier to go along with the program than to resist.
On the sixth day, […] Howard got ready for their walk. Millie looked to Howard and said, “Do we have to do this every day? A day off won’t hurt.” Howard lectured. […] Millie rolled her eyes […] Howard grabbed her sweater. “Let’s just get this over with. You’ll be happy when it’s done.”
They walked a block and stepped onto the crosswalk. [They were both struck by a speeding car. Howard suffered bruising and a broken arm. He witnessed Millie being hit with catastrophic results, and later in hospital the Drs told him that they were unable to resuscitate her and that she had died.]
People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another, and back again to the first one.
For Howard, the first days alone were a bag of mixed emotions. “She can’t be gone,” he’d say. Then he felt rage. […] At bedtime, he’d bargain again. “Please, God, let me fall asleep and wake up realizing this was all a dream. I will do anything to have her back.”
His thoughts were bargaining with all the what ifs… “What if I had said…?” “What if I had done / not done…?” […] Bargaining was an escape from the pain, a distraction from the sad reality of a life without them.
His family would have to remind him that he wasn’t responsible for the accident. ”You were trying to keep her healthy,” they’d say, “not leading her to her death. You had no way of knowing that some reckless driver in a stolen car was about to come flying around the corner.” They thought of his reaction as one of guilt.
He would tell them that he knew it wasn’t his fault. Bargaining for him was his escape from the pain, a distraction from the sad reality of his life without her.
In his first six months, denial, anger, and a lot of bargaining were his constant companions. They would eventually lead him to depression, still mixed with the “if onlys” of bargaining. Acceptance came in bits and pieces over the next few years.
For Howard, bargaining as a key stage, since he was still holding a piece of the alternate future in which his wife’s death never happened. Bargaining can be an important reprieve from the pain that occupies one’s grief. He never believed the bargaining; he just found relief in it momentarily.
In other cases, bargaining can help our mind move from one state of loss to another. It can be a way station that gives our psyche the time it may need to adjust. Bargaining may fill the gaps that our strong emotions generally dominate, which often keeps suffering at a distance. It allows us to believe that we can restore order to the chaos that has taken over. Bargaining changes over time. We may start out bargaining for our loved one to be saved. Later, we may even bargain that we might die instead of our loved one.
When we accept they are going to die we may bargain that their death will be painless. After a death, bargaining often moves from the past to the future. We may bargain that we will see our loved ones again in heaven. We may bargain and ask for respite from illnesses in our family, or that no other tragedies visit out loved ones. A mother who loses a child may bargain that her other children remain safe and healthy.
As we move through the bargaining process, the mind alters past events while exploring all those “what if” and “if only” statements. Sadly, the mind inevitably comes to the same conclusion … the tragic reality is that our love done is well and truly gone.”
Here's hoping that the losses we're feeling now are only temporary, and that, in time, there will be a resurrection of sorts for all of us (which feels fitting as this is written on Easter Sunday, 2020 DC - During Corona).
* - Earlier I wrote: "Are you a be-er or a doer?" It hasn't gone unnoticed that there is a noun for doing, but not one for being. This grammatical imbalance seems to only illustrate how our Western culture favours the productivity of doing over being. We are constantly told that we should be doing: "The devil makes work for idle hands". right? Maybe not. I'd like to give some credence to times of being. It's okay to take time, to pause, to reflect. For it is only when we are still that we can listen to the quieter voices/sounds of existence that often get missed in the noise of all our doing.
The next blog will be Kübler-Ross & Kessler's' thoughts on Depression.
[Quotes are from "On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss" by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler]