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Coping with Loss:
Teachings from a Master
By Dan Kennedy

Author Earl Grollman talks about answering the hardest questions

July/August 2000

As befits his status as America's foremost death educator, Rabbi Earl A. Grollman has a serious but caring demeanor. Just below the surface, though, is a playful sense of humor. In conversation, he throws in quips about his beloved Red Sox and urges a visitor to his house, in Massachusetts, to eat the chicken salad sandwich his wife, Netta, has prepared, lest he be forced to eat it himself for supper.

Grollman, who turns 75 in July, is Beacon Press's bestselling author, with 26 books to his credit, which have between them sold three-quarters of a million copies. The majority--with titles such as Living When a Loved One Has Died, Caring and Coping When Your Loved One Is Seriously Ill, and Straight Talk about Death for Teenagers--are spare volumes offering common sense advice for people in crisis. A few, such as Living When a Young Friend Commits Suicide (Or Even Starts Talking about It), co-authored with psychotherapist Max Malikow, are longer and more detailed, meant to bring wisdom to a field shrouded in ignorance and taboos.

A sought-after lecturer who frequently appears on national television and radio shows ranging from Oprah to All Things Considered, Grollman has been honored repeatedly for his groundbreaking work. His book Talking about Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child won a UNESCO Book Award. He won the Lifetime Achievement Award from Children Hospice International, which has also established an award in his name, and he was cited as a "Hero of the Heartland" for his work with volunteers and victims' families after the Oklahoma City bombing. Grollman, who earned his doctorate from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, was rabbi of the Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, Massachusetts, until he retired in 1987. He now devotes his time to writing and lecturing.

Earl and Netta Grollman have three children and six grandchildren. When their kids were growing up, he says, he was often so wrapped up in helping others that he didn't have enough time for his own family. These days, he says, he's learning to take the time.

"Many of us who give so much to so many other people have forgotten the people closest to us," Grollman says. "Now, after I finish jogging, I walk around the Cambridge Reservoir with Netta. And after many years of marriage, I said, 'You know, you're really funny!' She said, 'I've always been funny. You've never listened to me before.' It's amazing how I'm watching people in a different way."

World: How did you get involved in grief counseling?

Earl Grollman: When my closest friend died many years ago, his children asked me, "What do we do?" I didn't know. I went to the Widener Library at Harvard to pick out a book on children and death. But there wasn't one single, solitary book on the subject. So I went to Beacon Press with a proposal, because Beacon at that time was the pioneer in working with problems that nobody else would handle. They did the Pentagon Papers. I wrote the first book ever published on explaining death to children. It sold 500 copies the first year, and I bought 497 of them myself and gave them away.

The issue is not whether children are going to have death education. Death education doesn't begin in a school. It begins when you watch a leaf fall from a tree, when you see a dead animal in the street, when you pass by a cemetery. I'm on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood often, and they did research that said by the time a person is 15, they've seen, like, 19,000 deaths on television. They see the killing, the murdering, but they don't see the aftermath of normal people grieving.

World: Many people are surprised by your belief that children as young as seven should be allowed to attend funerals.

EG: I wrote that in 1967, and I've changed since then. I now think from the ages of three, four, and five they should be allowed, under these conditions: You don't take a child to a funeral unless you explain what it's all about and what's going to happen--that there's a wake at Our Lady of Mercy Church, there's Fr. McNamara, there's a casket. Say, "If you would like to go, you may go. And maybe you would like to bring a friend," because they need their own support groups as well. If they go, don't say, "Kiss the body," because they're going to have nightmares because the body is cold.

Children understand their inclusion far better than their exclusion. Anything that is mentionable is much more manageable. It's not only good for the kids, it's also good for the adults. When people see a little kid, a grandchild, playing in the middle of the floor at a wake, it's the best therapy in the world. It's the continuity of life.

World: This must have been a difficult subject for you to deal with as a young clergyman.

EG: Most schools of theology don't teach it. You're taught about Is there life after death? You're taught about the kind of prayers to intone, the liturgy, the type of sermon to deliver for a eulogy.

No matter what your belief in the next world may be, it hurts like hell to say goodbye in this world. And many of us become clergy because we can't handle death. By becoming clergy, we become the people in charge of death. So we run in, say our prayers, and get out as quickly as possible. And we are not seen again. Bereaved people always tell me the clergyperson is of no help.

The first funeral I ever conducted was the first funeral I had ever attended. I was 24 years old. A 14-year-old boy had drowned at a summer camp in Maine, and I was called in. I just went through the motions, without any background or understanding.

I was, in many ways, frightened, feeling inadequate, because I thought I had to have answers. And I've learned there are no answers. There are only questions. The most we can bring is our own presence and our own compassion. After I went to Oklahoma City, people asked, "What did you tell them?" And I said, "They didn't ask me to tell them a damn thing. They asked me to listen." There is a Jewish aphorism that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we speak. It's a question of finding out where people are and not coming in with platitudes:

I know how you feel. How do I know how anybody feels? I don't know your pain. I know only my pain.

It's God's will. That's the worst statement that's ever made. I mean, who's privy to this information? God must be our enemy--who killed 169 people, who killed my mother, my father, my sister, my brother.

You have three other children. Nobody replaces the child who has died.

World: In reading Living When a Loved One Has Died and several of your other books, I was struck by the format--the abundant white space, the arrangement of words as if they were verse. What was your thinking?

EG: I use this format because people in pain and turmoil can't go through a long book. They don't want to see something with footnotes.

You could probably read Living When a Loved One Has Died in 15 minutes. But most bereaved people cannot, will not finish that book for at least two weeks because they'll pick up a certain part, and that'll be as far as they can go. What they really want to know from me the most is they're not crazy. They're thinking, "I don't know what's wrong with me. I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't concentrate. I'm driving my car, I come to a red light, I don't remember whether it means stop or go. I go to make out a bank deposit slip; I forgot how. I even forgot my own name. Am I losing my mind?" And I say, "When a person close to you has died, part of you has died, and life will never again be the same. Don't compare your grief. If it's the death of a child, it's the death of your future. If it's the death of a parent, it's the death of your past. If it's the death of a spouse, it's the death of your present.

"Grieve in your own way. Go with your gut."

World: How do you approach the spiritual dimension with people from a wide variety of backgrounds? Some Unitarian Universalists, for instance, don't believe in God or an afterlife. How do you find what's universal?

EG: Pain is the universal tie. Whether you're Jewish or Christian or Muslim or atheist or agnostic, it doesn't make any difference. Grief is an emotion. It's not a disease. Grief is as natural as eating when you're hungry, drinking when you're thirsty. Grief is nature's way of healing a broken heart. To me the spiritual approach is not rituals and ceremonies and traditions. It's talking to people and saying, "These are your feelings: shock, grief, physical ailments. How do I help you accept these feelings?" For me, spirituality is sharing these feelings, whether it's with someone you may call God or with a friend or a support group. Grief shared is grief diminished.

Some of the most spiritual experiences I've had have not been in a church or a synagogue or a mosque. It was when I helped to establish a hospice in South Africa, in Soweto, illegally, before Nelson Mandela was freed. It was marching for civil rights in Selma, Alabama. To me, spirituality is that which connects us to each other.

World: Earlier in our conversation, you alluded to your visit to Oklahoma City as a grief counselor in 1995, after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. What did you do? How did it affect you?

EG: It was horrifying. The enormity of it overpowered me. You're not dealing with one or two or five--it's 169 people. Those of us who were there to help were not there just to take away people's pain. We were there to share their pain. But it's their pain. Ultimately it's not ours.

The first days, I didn't sleep at all, and the strange thing is, I didn't need to sleep. I learned, and I watched people. One black lady involved told me it was the first time white people had ever touched and hugged her. People came together for that particular moment. Some even said to me, "I could hug you to death."

But the bombing took its toll on me. The hardest thing was that when I returned to Boston, I couldn't rid myself of the smell of burning bodies. How do clergy and grief counselors handle our pain? Most of us who are great with everybody else don't know what to do with ourselves.

World: What kind of events other than death might trigger grief?

EG: When I give talks, I almost always discuss not only the loss of dying and death but the many losses we face. You've lost your job, your child's been disabled, you've moved, you've divorced--these are all losses. Divorce, for one, is worse than physical death in many ways, because with death there is closure--it's the end, that's the funeral, that's the casket, it's over. With divorce, it's never over unless there's no money involved, no children involved, and both parties have found different mates. I've written three books on divorce.

At talks, the question I always hear from people is, "What is the worst loss of all?" And I say, "It's when it happens to you or to me. This is our loss. How do we handle it? How do we accept it? How do we express it? How do we commemorate it? And how do we then go on living?"

World: Are you involved in any new projects?

EG: I'm working on my 27th book, which Beacon is bringing out in September. Though almost all my books speak in general terms, the new one is more particularistic. It's called Living with Loss, Healing with Hope: A Jewish Perspective. As a rabbi, I thought maybe I should bring in some of what my faith has to give.

World: What do you hope to be remembered for?

EG: I'd like to be remembered as somebody who listened, who didn't know the answers but extended a hand. I know how to do something that most men do not know: I know how to touch. Sometimes, when words fail, it's the touch that's most important. It lets people know I care.

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