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Understanding Grief: Belmont's Grollman on Living with Death

A conversation with Beth El's Rabbi Emeritus whose work on understanding death was recognized nationally last week.

Understanding Grief: Belmont's Grollman on Living with Death

The subject is often presented with humor because, some say, laughter releases the stress and fear it evokes: Death.  

There is the story of the actor near death, asked how he was doing, who said: “Dying is easy; it’s comedy that is difficult.” Henry Thoreau was on his death bed when a friend wanted to know if he could see the next world yet; Thoreau answered, “Oh, one world at a time.” 

Even Founding Father Benjamin Franklin has commented wryly on realities of civic life and life’s final phase, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

Rabbi Earl Grollman, Rabbi Emeritus of Belmont's Beth El Temple Center is a nationally recognized expert in the field of thanatology, the study of death, dying and grief.

On April 25, the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) honored Grollman with its “Lifetime Achievement Award,” the fourth time in three decades this award has been presented. It honors “…an outstanding individual in the area of death, dying, grief and loss who has had a national or international impact [and is] dedicated … to the development and improvement of death education, caring for the dying person, and grief counseling.”

For 36 years, Grollman led his Belmont congregation, which built the Temple at 2 Concord Ave in the mid-1950s. His national and international fame have been, BETC’s Rabbi Jonathan Kraus says, “a source of pride for the members of Beth El.”

As for Grollman’s influence on rabbinical training, Kraus acknowledges, “For clergy, Rabbi Grollman provided a powerful model of the kinds of words and pastoral presence we can offer to folks going through the most difficult passages of life.”   

Grollman’s own early training to be a rabbi prepared him for the prayers and rituals, but not the impact of death and loss on his congregants.  When he started ministering to bereaved members of his congregations, he realized that death and dying, inevitable and universal as they are, are subjects worthy of recognition and study. 

Some colleagues at the time thought his interest strange, suggesting perhaps that they too were intimidated by the sad and scary subject; some even satirized Grollman as the Angel of Death. As the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross became popular, and the Hospice movement grew, Grollman became a leader in death education. 

Since then, he has written 27 books and articles, and given countless speeches throughout the world. In the early 1960's only a few dozen joined him at a meeting. On April 25, there were many hundreds present in Hollywood, California, to give him his award.

"Grief,” as Grollman summarizes his work, “is nature's way of healing a broken heart."

The Belmont Patch caught up with Rabbi Grollman at his home in Belmont.

Q. As a young rabbi, you discovered how ill prepared you were to help your congregation experiencing the death of a parent, spouse, or child. Do you think rabbis and other clergy are better prepared today?

A.  Grief counseling is now an important part of educating clergy as well as the medical community. As the famous TV personality Mr. Rogers (on whose show Grollman appeared) has said, “There are helpers for you.”  The helpers are spiritual guides, like the rabbis, ministers and priests, and counselors who offer solace to the bereaved and lead the community of helpers to assist the mourners, in the lonely path of healing.

Q. As you began your study of death and dying, you were curious about how children handle grief. What can adults learn about death and mourning from children?

A. The people who were my teachers were the children and youth who dared to share their personal lives with me. They taught me.  I listened to what they had to teach me.

A person is a person, no matter how small. Don't pretend that life is unchanged. If we adults can’t get a handle on the death of someone close, how can a child? We used to deal with a death as a secret, which the child was not invited to share. 

I learned that we adults have to allow our children to witness our grief. They will then understand that such emotions of anger, guilt, and sadness are part of the grieving process. We may learn from them, many things, but from us they learn that grief, like death, is a natural part of life... Even infants know something is wrong.  And remember, whatever we cannot say with words, we can say with touch. The physical assurance of love and support is the greatest gift we can give to a grieving child. 

Q. You have ministered to families who have lost loved ones at Oklahoma City and on 9/11. What would you say, if called upon, to the parents of the eight-year-old boy, Martin Richard, killed at the Boston Marathon?

A. “We are here for you, in every way we can. I do not believe that your boy’s death is part of God’s plan and therefore God is responsible. We have free will. This is our world for good or ill and sometimes bad things do happen to very good people like your son. But we will not fail you. We will help you accept your loss, express your emotions, commemorate your grief, and continue on with your lives. We will honor your son’s life in the way we live ours.”

Q. As a religious person, do you ever find yourself defending God to people who feel, justifiably, singled out and victimized by life?

A. I think God cries, grieves, with us as these terrible events, these tragedies, happen. Grief has taught me what's important in life. I found God in places that I never found in the church or synagogue. I found God when I worked with people who were going through trauma and through pain. I learned what life is all about. Our existence on earth is brief. Death helps me to set priorities for life. I have to ask myself the question: "I'm still here — I can't bring that person back to life — now what am I going to do to ennoble, ignoble misfortune.”

Q. People die, you have said, but loving them never does. The Song of Songs, which you like to quote, says that love is as strong as death. Is it?

A. While death ends a life, it doesn't end the love you have for that person. As long as you live, so will your loved one. Death ends a life: it doesn't end a relationship. Life is for the living. 

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