Earl Grollman: “He Wrote More Than Two Dozen Books About Grief and Loss”

From a Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “Earl Grollman, rabbi who ministered to mourners, dies at 96”:

The dust had scarcely settled on the wreckage of the twin towers when a gentle Boston rabbi arrived in Lower Manhattan. He was not a first responder, but neither was his purpose of secondary importance. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he had come to care for mourners, to carry out what by then was his nationally known ministry to the grieving.

“I’m Earl Grollman,” he later recalled saying to shellshocked strangers walking the blocks around Ground Zero. “We’ll talk when you’re ready.” Many of them gratefully accepted his invitation.

Rabbi Grollman wrote more than two dozen books on the topic of grief and loss. Through his appearances on television programs such as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” in which he guided children through their fears and feelings about divorce, and through his public presence during national tragedies including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Rabbi Grollman served as a source of answers and comfort when both seemed in short supply.

Rabbi Grollman, who presided for more than 30 years over Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, Mass., embarked on his broader ministry in the early days of his career, when as a new rabbi he received a call from a congregant whose 12-year-old son had drowned at a summer camp in Maine. Rabbi Grollman, at that time, had never entered a funeral home or seen a dead body.

“I was expected to give solace and comfort and consolation,” he  said….“I really didn’t know what I was doing. But that’s what I was expected to do.”

In all his years of theological and rabbinical study, Rabbi Grollman had learned what prayers to say for the dead but little if anything about how a person dies. He discovered he was not alone in his ignorance. Doctors, he found, may know precisely how the heart or lungs fail but little about what it means for life to end. Even the most well-intentioned people, at a loss for what to say to a mourner, often resort to platitudes.

“We fall back on cliches,” he told the Boston Globe. “Some clergy say, ‘It’s God’s will; God needed another angel in heaven.’ Somebody’s killed by a drunk driver because God needed another angel in heaven? All of these simplistic statements push us away from people who are in pain.”

In books such as “Living When a Loved One Has Died,” Rabbi Grollman sought to remove the shroud that had long enveloped grief and made it more isolating for those in its throes, as well as more fear-inducing for people who had not yet but inevitably would encounter it.

He particularly insisted on the importance of speaking honestly about death to children, whom adults often try to shield from sadness or fear, with the unintended consequences of making them more bewildered or afraid.

“Children are people,” said Rabbi Grollman, who wrote or edited numerous books about addressing death with young people, including “Explaining Death to Children” and “Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child.” “They’re small people who need to grieve in their own way.”

Instead of engaging in what he described as “fairy tales and half-truths,” he encouraged adults to address death directly. The concept of heaven can be comforting but also, he noted, confusing; he said he met children who, having been told that a loved one went to heaven, looked out an airplane window expecting to find the person in the clouds.

Adults should not be afraid to cry in front of children, he said, for only by seeing grown-ups show their emotions do children learn to share their own. He advocated allowing even very young ones the option of attending funerals so that, with proper preparation, they, too, might participate in the rituals that help bring meaning to death.

If he had one message to impart, it was that grief was “not a disease.”

“It is love not wanting to let go,” he said, “because something has been lost from our life.”…

Earl Alan Grollman was born in Baltimore….His father worked at the city’s port, selling postcards and books, and his mother taught Hebrew school. He described his family as one “where the word death was never discussed” and recalled that even at age 14 he was not permitted to attend his grandmother’s funeral.

Rabbi Grollman received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati, studied at the city’s Hebrew Union College and was ordained as a rabbi in 1950. His early writings included “Judaism in Sigmund Freud’s World.”

Such was Rabbi Grollman’s devotion to the grieving that he kept his number listed in the phone book, so that anyone in need of his counsel could reach him. He conceded to sometimes thinking about his own death, although he seemed primarily concerned with the bereaved he would leave behind….

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond. She previously worked for the Outlook and Local Living sections.

Speak Your Mind