Problem Solving Grief

Grief isn’t a problem that can be solved. I want to make sure we’re all clear on this before proceeding.


Great. Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s talk about problem solving.

I know I know, I just said, “grief is not a problem that can be solved”, and it isn’t.  But here’s the deal, WYG is a website dedicated to leaving no stone unturned in understanding how people grieve. Part of this means learning from concepts that aren’t typically applied to grief; borrowing what works and throwing the rest away.  (For examples see this post inspired by improv comedy, all our posts on using photography to cope with grief, oh and this post about the 8 horcruxes of grief) This is what I’d like to do with the concept of problem solving.

Problem solving can be defined in a number of ways, but the definition that suits me the most is from

“Problem-solve: (verb): to use cognitive processing to find a solution to a difficult question or situation; to use deep thought to solve a problem.”

Okay so we’ve established that grief is not a problem, but it can absolutely be thought of as a difficult situation.  We’ve also established that there are no solutions to grief, but one does use cognitive processes to try and understand, explore, and cope with their experiences. So grief and problem solving are not the same, but there are parallels.

Now I suppose one could argue that parallels only exist because society has created a dynamic in which people are implicitly and explicitly pushed into conceptualizing grief as problem that should be approached as though it’s a Sudoku puzzle in the Sunday paper. While I agree this is a less than ideal way to look at grief, maybe it’s all the more reason why someone experiencing grief might want to learn a thing or two about problem solving. In this article I’d like to specifically focus on the cognitive processes involved in ineffective problem solving, because it seems as though people often make similar mistakes when attempting to cope with grief. 

Barriers to problem solving

Psychologists have identified a number of barriers that commonly interfere in problem solving. Anecdotally (meaning I’ve done no research on this) it seems to me that people experiencing grief often encounter similar roadblocks when trying to understand and cope with their losses.  Let’s look at a few (but not all) of the barriers that impede problem solving and discuss how they may apply to grief.

Mental set:

In problem solving, mental set occurs when people persist in using problem-solving strategies that have worked in the past, even though they never worked or no longer work when applied to their current problem(s).  People who are fixated on using a ‘mental set’ don’t know when to abandon ineffective strategies and consequently close themselves off from finding new solutions.

In grief, you might see similar struggles in a number of different scenarios.  Part of what makes grief so hard is that things that once contributed to a healthy balanced life – like support systems, coping skills, and assumptions about the world – often seem ineffective or even nonsensical in the context of life after loss.  Sadly, safety nets often fail at the precise times when they are needed most.

In these instances many people persist in using the same old coping skills and leaning on the same unreliable, family and friends. Others may feel so let down by their assumptions and expectations that they become utterly paralyzed. Both reactions may signify a person’s inability to regroup, reassess, and to flexibly think about new solutions and effective coping.

Unnecessary constraints:

When attempting to solve problems, people often find themselves boxed in by the rules, boundaries, absolutes, and truths they assume apply to the situation.  The dot problem is a commonly used example of unnecessary constraints.

Instructions: Connect these nine dots using four straight lines without lifting your pencil or folding your paper. 


People often have a hard time solving this problem because they assume they have to stay inside the box. Indeed there is no way to solve this puzzle and stay inside the box, but no one ever said you had to!  The assumption that you have to stay inside the box is an example of an unnecessary constraints.

Interestingly, people commonly place unnecessary constraints around their grief. Countless myths and misconceptions exist about the ways in which grief should look. Here are a few:

When a person places unnecessary constraints around their grief two things can happen. First, they might feel crazy, abnormal, frustrated, and disappointed when their grief doesn’t look the way they expected it to.  Second, they may never look outside of the box when conceptualizing their grief and the kinds of coping that might be helpful in their healing.

Functional Fixedness:

Functional fixedness is a really interesting type of mental set. Functional fixedness occurs when a person perceives an item only in terms of its most common use. This rigid way of thinking often leads people to overlook obscure, little-noticed features of problems.

For example if a person is only able to see…

  • A brick as a brick and not as a door stop
  • A mason jar as a mason jar and not a Pinteresty candle holder
  • A pair of scissors as a pair of scissors and not as a replacement doorknob, which is how we often used them in my childhood home (safe!)

For those of you 35 and older here’s another example. Remember the show MacGyver?  MacGyver was always getting himself out sticky situations by using common items in inventive ways.  For example, the time he used milk chocolate candy to stop a sulphuric acid leak. If Macgyver suffered from functional fixedness he would have been all like “What am I going to do about this sulphuric acid lead? All I have is this Hersey bar!” Instead, because he’s a master problem solver, he thought, “I know what I’ll do about this sulfuric acid lead! This chocolate bar that I was saving for desert contains sucrose and glucose, which will react with the acid to form elemental carbon and a thick gummy residue!”

So what does using common items in inventive ways have to do with grief?  Nothing really.  However, I do think the idea of functional fixedness is analogous to rigidity some people experience when thinking about the types of coping that can be helpful in grief. Although certain types of coping, like support groups, talking to a friend, and counseling, are commonly associated with grief, grief coping can actually be thought of in far more broad terms.

Grief coping can encompass anything that helps a person process their experiences, gives the person a boost of positive emotion, or provides them with the opportunity for self-care.  Coping can include things like music, art, spending time with pets, writing, reading, exercise, ritual etc and oftentimes these are things that people were already using in their day-to-day life before the loss.

Irrelevant information:

Have you ever taken a test that had questions with a lot of misleading information designed to throw you off and make you fail?  If so, then you’ve fallen victim to irrelevant information. People tend to get distracted by irrelevant information when trying to solve a problem.  Try this example out:

In the Thompson family there are five brothers, and each brother has one sister. If you count Mrs. Thompson, how many females are there in the Thompson family?

The puzzle master who wrote this question threw in irrelevant information that seems relevant.  Do you know which information is irrelevant? If so, then you probably know the answer to the question.

The correct answer is two females – the sister and Mrs. Thompson.  The fact that there are five brothers is irrelevant, but people tend to think that it must figure into the problem or else why would it be included (to make your head hurt, obviously). Effective problem solving requires that you figure out what information is relevant, and what information is irrelevant, before proceeding.

If you’ve ever experienced grief, you know that distraction and confusion are common experiences. It’s often difficult to know where to put your limited focus.  It’s easier said than done, but to the extent that a person can, people who are grieving should try and focus on what’s important and block out everything that isn’t.

If you are coping with grief, make sure you prioritize yourself, your immediate loved ones, and your grief.  Take the pressures and judgments of others in stride when you can and remain focused on forging a continued bond with your loved one (if you like) and take small steps towards a life of balance and well-being.

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