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.
Grollman, who died Oct. 15 at 96, 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, Grollman served as a source of answers and comfort when both seemed in short supply.
Grollman, who presided for more than 30 years over Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, Massachusetts, 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. 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 in a speech at Highmark Caring Place, a center in Pennsylvania that serves grieving children and their families. “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, 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” (1977), Grollman sought to remove the shroud that had long enveloped grief and had 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 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.”
Grollman was invited to the high school in Paducah, Kentucky, where a 14-year-old student fatally shot three classmates in 1997, and he visited others where students had died by suicide. He traveled repeatedly to Oklahoma City after a truck bomb killed 168 people, including 19 children, at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.
The work was not without its burdens; he told the Vancouver Sun that after returning from Oklahoma City, he felt compelled to douse himself in after-shave because he could not rid himself of the smell of decaying bodies. But still he continued, confronting death to show others that they could face it, too.
He told the Daily Town Talk of Alexandria, Louisiana, that when he left New York after the Sept. 11 attacks, 300 people assembled at Ground Zero holding aloft a sign that read, “Thank you for coming.”
Earl Alan Grollman was born in Baltimore on July 3, 1925. 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.
Grollman received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1947, 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” (1965).
Survivors include his wife of more than 70 years, the former Netta Levinson of Belmont; three children, David Grollman of Burlington, Mass., Jonathan Grollman of Lexington, Mass., and Sharon Grollman of Cambridge, Mass.; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. A great-grandson predeceased him.
Such was 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.
According to his daughter, Grollman died at his home in Belmont and had congestive heart failure.
“I’ve never discussed this,” he told the Globe in 1997, referring to his death, “but I hope that it would be in a way that my family won’t be horrified and have to revisit in their minds. I’d like it to be a peaceful kind of death, and I’m in full faculty. I’m afraid I will be rendered paralyzed and no longer able to do what I’m able to do. I continue to move almost frantically, because I want to grow until I go. I need to feel that in some way I’m making a difference, and I feel that people, in their pain, help me to focus my life on what’s important. I guess I need to be needed.”