Rabbi Earl A. Grollman, 96, Dies; Sought to Demystify Death and Grief

He wrote prolifically about grief, counseled the bereaved after 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing and paid particular attention to children. “Grief is the price we pay for love,” he’d say.,

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Rabbi Earl A. Grollman, a prolific writer on grief who became widely known for ministering to those mourning the death of loved ones in the 9/11 attacks, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and other times of loss, died on Oct. 15 at his home in Belmont, Mass. He was 96.

His daughter, Sharon Grollman, said that the cause was congestive heart failure.

Rabbi Grollman was known nationally as an expert in the field of grief counseling, appearing on “Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and other television programs. He ministered to people of all faiths, encouraging frank conversations about a topic that has often been taboo.

He wrote more than two dozen books about death and grieving, including “Living When a Loved One Has Died” (1977), “Straight Talk About Death for Teenagers: How to Cope With Losing Someone You Love” (1993) and “Your Aging Parents: Reflections for Caregivers” (1997).

His work took him to all corners of the country. After a far-right militant bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City in 1955, killing 168 people, Rabbi Grollman flew in from Boston and made several presentations on dealing with grief. He spoke at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in that city and met with survivors, family members and emergency medical workers.

“One touch of sorrow makes the whole world kin,” he told The Daily Oklahoman in 1997, when he returned to the state to speak to emergency medical workers and others affected by the attack.

Rabbi Grollman, who led the Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, Mass., for 36 years before retiring in 1987, was in Vancouver, British Columbia, attending a conference on bereavement on Sept. 11, 2001, when planes hijacked by Islamist militants crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He said a member of his former congregation was a passenger aboard the fourth jetliner hijacked by the terrorists, United Airlines Flight 93, which was forced down into a field in Shanksville, Pa.

“I’m telling people that the most important part for all of us at the moment is to feel free to feel all the reactions and feelings that we are experiencing,” Rabbi Grollman was quoted as saying in The Vancouver Sun.

Indeed, he was a proponent of talking openly about dying and grief, something that came with difficulty for many people, he said. “Death has come out of the closet,” he told The New York Times in 1994.

“For so many years people thought that if they didn’t talk about it, death would go away,” he continued. “It was the immorality of mortality. But for the first time, people are willing to acknowledge that living is the leading cause of death, and they want to talk about it.” He counseled mourners with his often-used adage “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

His appearance on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” in 1981, was focused on the effect of divorce on children, and his message to them was that their negative feelings about their parents’ separation were OK, that they were natural.

Jonathan Kraus, the current rabbi at the Belmont synagogue, outside Boston, said Rabbi Grollman’s work on children’s grief was an important part of his legacy. Rabbi Grollman, he said, understood that grief could be complicated for children but could translate those issues into simple language.

“He had a capacity to make those ideas accessible without watering them down,” Rabbi Kraus said.

Earl Alan Grollman was born on July 3, 1925, in Baltimore to Gerson and Dorah (Steinbach) Grollman. His mother taught Hebrew school; his father sold books and postcards at the city’s port.

Earl became curious about grief at a young age. He recalled in an interview with Highmark Caring Place, an organization that helps young people deal with grief, that he had not been allowed to attend his grandmother’s funeral as a 14-year-old. The prevailing sentiment at the time was that children had no business experiencing death.

He attended Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and was ordained in 1950. He became an assistant rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston and then the rabbi of Beth El Temple Center in Belmont in 1951.

At seminary, he said, he was not taught how to deal with death in a congregation, and this lack of communication about dying rankled him. After the death of a close friend, he wanted to counsel the bereaved family. But there were scant resources available that discussed death and grief in detail, he said.

He published his first book on the topic, “Talking about Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child,” in 1970.

Rabbi Grollman married Netta Levinson in 1949. Along with his daughter, his wife survives him, as do their sons, David and Jonathan; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. His brother, Jerome, who died in 2008, was also a rabbi and led the United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis.

After Rabbi Grollman retired from Beth El to focus on writing and counseling, he returned there occasionally to recite the Yizkor, a memorial prayer for the dead, and regularly addressed the congregation into his 90s.

“Obsessing about death can lead to paralysis, while ignoring it can squander opportunity,” he told The Times in 1994. “The important thing about death is the importance of life. Do what you have to do now. Live today meaningfully.”

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