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Rabbi Dr. Earl A. Grollman: "Grief is nature's way of healing a broken heart."

Dr. Earl A. Grollman, a pioneer in the field of crisis intervention, was rabbi of the Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, Massachusetts, for 36 years. A past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, he took early retirement from his congregation so that he could devote himself to writing and lecturing. A certified Death Educator and Counselor, he was cited as “Hero of the Heartland” for his work with families and volunteers at the Oklahoma City Bombing. Dr. Grollman has spoken at many colleges, clergy institutes, seminaries, physicians' forums, and hospital nursing associations and addressed many support groups, such as Compassionate Friends, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and Widows Personal Services. He has also appeared on national television and radio — the Oprah Winfrey Show, Children’s Journal, All Things Considered, and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Rabbi Grollman gave the following talk to audiences at the Caring Place several years ago.

Good evening. I always begin with the same introduction. I start with a word that's part of my tradition, it's part of your tradition. It's the word "Shalom" — the word in Hebrew for hello and goodbye and peace.

It's easy to meet someone and say hello, how are you? But the hardest thing in the world is learning to say goodbye to people that we love.

I'm grateful for the time I've had to spend here in Pennsylvania at these three Caring Places, to see all the work you do here with support groups for children. I've never seen a greater model for grieving children than here at the Caring Place. And I'm going to tell you that tomorrow night when we leave, there will be a little tear in my eyes because of this affection that I feel for the Caring Place. It won't be easy for me to say goodbye myself.

How I Got Involved in Children's Grief

The question I'm always asked is, How did you get involved in this? And the answer is we don't choose much of what we do, it chooses us.

Death was not discussed at home
I come from a family where the word death was never discussed. Does that sound familiar? I remember once being in a family gathering and my grandmother saying, "When I die..." Her husband, my grandfather, had died, her contemporaries had died, so she had every right to say "When I die ..."

And my uncle, who was the Chair of the Department of Psychology at Johns Hopkins University, said, "Don't say it, don't say that word."

When my grandmother did die, I wasn't allowed to go to the funeral because I was too young. I was 14 years old. But because my parents loved me and wanted to protect me, they said, "Earl, it's no place for children." So I did not attend my grandmother's funeral.

Death was not taught at seminary
In order to be ordained a rabbi, when I went to school we had four years of college and six years of seminary. Back then, and still in many seminaries today, there wasn't much discussion about death.

Now there was a question of theology — Is there life after life? There were courses in liturgy — What kind of prayers are to be intoned? There were courses in homiletics — What kind of eulogy is to be delivered? — but nothing about what happens when real people die. In studying to become a clergyperson, there is very little taught.

This is also true in many schools of social work. And physicians, they're taught how to do a postmortem, but nothing on what death means.

But death had to be dealt with in the congregation
So I had no background or understanding of death. But as a clergyperson, it was part of my life. I was ordained and I came to Boston as an assistant clergyperson. Now, whether you're Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish it doesn't make any difference — when the assistant clergyperson comes to town, that very day the senior minister goes on vacation. That's what happened in my congregation.

So I'm by myself in this large synagogue, at Temple Israel in Boston. And the first telephone call comes in. The person said, "Our twelve-year-old son has just drowned at a summer camp in Maine." It was my first confrontation with death, the first time I had ever been in a funeral home, and the first time I had ever seen a dead body. I was expected to give solace and comfort and consolation. I really didn't know what I was doing. But that's what I was expected to do.

I've had as many as three weddings and three funerals on the same day. You go from joy to sorrow, friendship to bereavement. You feel schizophrenic. The day that somebody from my congregation was murdered by the Boston strangler, that night I had a wedding.

Children experience death — and there's nowhere to turn
Then I had a close friend who wasn't feeling well. They said it was psychosomatic, which meant the doctor didn't know. The day that he was to see the psychiatrist, he was rushed to the Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. He was dead on arrival. He had cancer that wasn't properly diagnosed. I walked into the home, and the children came over to me. They said, "Uncle Earl" — that's what they called me — "what do we do?"

The children, Johnny and Wendy, seven and nine, were asking me, and I didn't know what to do. Should they go to the funeral? What could I say? How could I help them? I thought all I needed was go to the Widener Library at Harvard, which is seven minutes from my home, and take out a book on how to help children. Would you believe, in 1965, not one single solitary book?

Starting a grief team at Harvard
The next day I received a telephone call from a Dr. Gerald Kaplan of the Harvard Community School of Psychiatry. He said, "We're starting something new at Harvard, a Grief Team, and we want you to become part of the team."

I said, "If you had called me a day earlier, I would have said no." And so I became interested especially in children because of these two people who were almost family to me.

Taught by the children
The people who were my teachers were the kids. They taught me what it was all about. I listened to what they had to tell me. This is what I learned about children and grief.

Grief Is Natural and Normal

Children are people. They're small people who need to grieve in their own way.

What I learned is that when there is loss, when there is a death, there is grief. I love the mission statement of the Caring Place. Grief is not a disease. Grief is as natural as eating when you're hungry, drinking when you're thirsty, and sleeping when you're tired.

Grief is nature's way of healing a broken heart.

Grief is love never ever, ever ready to say good-bye.

When someone is dying, part of you is dying. When someone has died, part of you has died. And life will never ever be the same.

Those in grief can feel like they're crazy — but they're not
Children need to know what adults need to know-that they are not crazy.

There is a psychiatric term called "The Crazies," which many grieving adults experience:

I don't know what's wrong with me. I get up in the morning and I don't know where I'm going. I get lost. I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't concentrate. I come to a red light, and I forgot whether the red light means stop or go. I go to make a bank deposit slip, I forgot how. I even forgot my own name.

Grieving children have similar feelings. They go to school and they can't concentrate. Those who were very quiet become aggressive. And so this is how they let it out, the feelings that are instilled in them.

What I think children need to know and what you need to know is they're not crazy. They're not going crazy. It's part of the grief process.

When someone is dying part of you is dying. You are not crazy.

After a Death, You Can Feel Like a Spectator of Your Own Life — or Your Own Nightmare

In the beginning, you don't even know what's happening to you. Someone has died, people are moving in and out, you walk around, you talk, you say, "The Yankees are winning, what's happening in the news, my husband died ... What am I talking about?" You just make conversation, and everybody says you are doing so well.

You feel like a spectator. In terms of what's happening in your own family, you don't believe it, it's a nightmare, when you wake up you'll find out that it really didn't happen.

Even days and months later, the telephone rings, and we think, "Maybe it's my husband, maybe it's my child." We hear footsteps in the house, and we think the same thing.

What I'm saying is, the head understands, but the heart refuses to acknowledge it.

If adults go through this, think of what the children experience. Very often they do not show any grief at first because they can't even believe what's happening.

I remember once walking into a home; the father was just killed in an automobile accident, and with the mother, I told the young boy that his father had just died. And he said, "Oh. Can I go out and play?" The reality hadn't sunk in yet.

And what we've learned from the studies of Sloan Kettering is that children may not react initially to the loss, but they may feel it even longer than adults.

This is a great problem and this is why you need something like the Caring Place.

Everyone's grief is unique
So often we expect that each child is going to react in the same way. We read about the stages of grief. But it's not a cookbook.

Grief is individual — as individual as snowflakes and fingerprints. It depends upon so many different elements. What is the age of the child? Even infants know something is wrong. They can't talk, don't know the word die or dead, but they know something is wrong by the way you lift that infant out of the crib. They can feel your rigidity. We telegraph what is going on.

Relationship to the person who died
What is the relationship to the individual who died? I remember a mother coming to me and saying, "I'm so concerned about my son; he's stuck in the first stage of denial. My father, his grandfather, died. He lived in Scottsdale. I didn't take my son out of school, but when I want to talk about my father, he can't handle it, he changes the subject."

So they came to see me, and I sat down and I said, "Have you been sad lately?" And he said yes.

I said, "Tell me why you're sad?"

He said, "Because Larry Bird is retiring."

That's not what I was expecting. I said, "Oh. Anything else?"

He said, "Am I here because of my Grandfather?"

I said, "Yeah, tell me about your Grandfather."

He said, "I think I saw him three times in my life, he lived thousands of miles away, and each time I saw him he had bad breath."

When we expect each child to act in the same way, we will be surprised. Other children are just as close to their grandparents as they are to their own parents. Each one will be going through their own particular areas of grief and pain and loss.


Then, what is your experience? If you live on a farm you know more about death than I ever knew living only in large cities.

And different types of death provoke different reactions. When I spoke before parents of murdered children last week, that was one kind of loss. A sudden infant death syndrome is a different kind of loss, suicide, AIDS — each type of loss will be different.

It also depends upon how you handle other kinds of stress in your life.

The support you get
And most important, the grief a person experiences depends upon what kinds of support they are receiving. That's why we're here in this place, the Caring Place. That's what the Caring Place offers.

Support over the long haul
Grief is a process. It's never over, and for many people the height of depression is not at the moment of death.

A real problem that we are becoming aware of now is that many of us who are the grief therapists may do more harm than good when we rush to the school shootings, to Oklahoma City, to Ground Zero and we try to help. But they don't even know what's going on yet. We stay there for only three or four days and then we leave. As someone said, "I'm grieving as quickly as I can." It's like a surgeon opening up a patient and then leaving them.

That's why you need people later on, that's why you need the Caring Place because for most people, the intensity of the grief begins not at the moment of loss.

In the beginning all of us are there. We come, some will come to the funeral, to the wake, and then all of a sudden everybody has left. Six months later, "the tumult and the shouting dies, the captains and the kings depart," the people who have been around aren't around any longer. You are alone and lonely, bereft and bereaved, you are wounded. The person who was sleeping next to you is no longer there. You're not even sure you want to wake up in the morning. This is why the support of people who are able to understand what you are going through is so important.

"Time heals," we hear. Time doesn't do anything. Time is neutral. Time doesn't do anything, it's what you do with time that matters.

You hear about finding "closure." That's a word that I want you to forget. There is no closure. It's never over when it's over. There's Mother's Day, or Father's Day, there's birthdays, anniversaries. This Father's Day I will think a lot about my father. It's been many years, but it's still there.

It's like a scar. Later on, it may not be as red as it had been, but it's still there, hurting when you least expect it, because this is what love is all about. Grief is love never ready to say goodbye.

That's why I like the Caring Place broken heart logo. Because people ask when is it going to come back together again. It's not going to come back together. But you have that butterfly too — the pain is there, but so is the hope.

And that's why you need a Caring Place. That's why you need something beyond the first few days or weeks, because it's not enough to focus on just that moment.

Getting Help Is a Sign of Strength

Death isn't only about the person who died. It's about those who are still living. It's about the children, and it's about the parents, and it's about each one going through their own particular areas of grief and pain and loss.

Everyone needs to realize that going for help is not a sign of weakness. It's a sign of strength.

And when a child is grieving, we adults have to be in charge. You have to ask them, "What would you like?" and tell them, "Maybe we can do it together. Let's accommodate one another."

And remember, if they can see that you're in pain, they know that they can share the pain with you. You don't need to be stoical and keep it all inside, hidden. I know, you don't want to hurt them. The first time I shed a tear in front of my congregation I thought it destroyed them. And then it went around, a clergyperson cried, so it's okay for us. Seeing your tears is freeing for your children.

Peer support can be most helpful
Most important are the support groups; that's the most important thing that's happened in my life as a grief therapist. I started I think perhaps the first widow and widower program in the United States, because of coming to see a lady whose husband had died. I was talking to her and she said, "Is your wife living?" I said yes. She said "Then what the hell do you know?" She wasn't being insolent. I realized she was right. I thought, who could help her? Here I'm writing books, talking and speaking about death and grief, but I realized that the answer was, others who have been through the same thing.

I remember having one of the first meetings. The snow came down, it got higher and higher. If it were a Sabbath service we would have cancelled. And all women came, and the one or two men. I rushed outside, and I said, go home, it's dangerous. And they all said, "No, I'll stay. Here I can cry."

That's the Caring Place. There is nothing like the support groups, which I've never seen a greater model of than here at the Caring Place, where children can come, adults can come, parents and guardians come, and be with others like them. It's great that the Caring Place is not only for children but for their parents and guardians. We can't explain death to children until we begin to explain it to ourselves.

But the kids need each other. Their friends at home don't know what to say. But the people who help people the most are those who have been through it. The greatness of the Caring Place is that children come and they can let go of their feelings to their new friends they've made, and they find out that their feelings are feelings that other people have. It's a place where the kids can be and can do what they need to do. It's a safe place.

We know how important peers are to children. I do most of my work now in suicide. We find that 90 percent of suicidal kids tell their friends but not their parents. The fact is kids talk to kids. They don't always feel safe in talking to adults. But the more kids can talk, the better it is for them.

How we can help grieving children
It's not a question of whether children are going to have death education. The question is whether it's going to be good death education or not.

Death education begins not when someone has died. Death education begins when a leaf falls from a tree. When they see a dead animal on the street. When they turn on television. Research shows that by the time a person reaches the age of 15 they've seen 17,000 deaths on television.

They see the killing, the murdering, but they don't see the aftermath of normal people grieving. For very small children, death seems to be reversible. It's like playing cops and robbers for them.

Feel Free to Feel

Feelings are not good. Feelings are not bad. They are your feelings. Feel free to feel.

I'll say to grieving kids, I don't know how you're feeling. That's how I begin. I tell them, if you feel sad, or mad, scared, and so on, this is the way many people in your situation may be feeling. And if you feel this way, it's okay. But I don't tell anyone that this is how they should feel.

It's like getting a prescription from the physician. And the physician says, "Earl, if you take this prescription, I would suggest you not drive because you may be a little sleepy. Or your throat may be dry." Saying that doesn't mean that I have to feel this way, but that I shouldn't be surprised if I do feel this way. These are the natural expressions of grief.

Crying is a natural expression of grief. Abraham came to bury his wife Sarah, and he cried for her. She was an old lady. The shortest verse in the New Testament: "Jesus wept." If Jesus could weep, I give you permission. You can too. But you don't have to. I'm not the choreographer of your performance. I'm only giving you permission and license. I'm helping you to ventilate the feelings.

Sometimes people are angry. If you want to be angry, I give you permission. But you don't have to be angry.

I was taught as a child, angry thoughts make bad people. Wrong. Angry thoughts make very human people. We're angry at life. We may be angry at the person who died — didn't he or she love me enough to stay alive? We are angry at families that are intact because our family is not intact. We are angry because life isn't fair. And how do you live in an unfair world? We are even angry at God. Angry thoughts do not make bad people, they make very human people.

If you are angry, it is better to share your anger and say I am angry. To talk about it.

Validate and ventilate
All I do as a certified grief therapist, I validate feelings and then I help people ventilate their feelings, to let them go.

Children need this too. We learned that in many cases, after someone had died, nobody would say to the child, "Your mother, your father, your sister, your brother died." Adults thinking, I can't handle it. How can my poor children handle what's happening? And so they aren't told.

But what we find is that children, if they are given opportunity, often want to talk about it. Sometimes they're not ready to. In psychiatry there is a saying, "When the mind is ready the picture appears." You never know when it's going to come. Sometimes you have to create those conditions. You can take a photograph album, sometimes you can ask open-ended questions.

You can ask, "What are you feeling? What are you doing?" Get them to engage themselves and let them know that if they want to talk you are there to talk. Sometimes children are trying to spare you, because they think you've been through enough pain.

And sometimes you are afraid to show your own emotion, because you know it's going to hurt the children. But when you show your grief it legitimizes theirs.

Making mountains out of moments
So we validate and ventilate. And then you commemorate the loss. And the life. What I do as a clergyperson is I make mountains out of moments.

A person is born, we commemorate through baptism or circumcision. People go through puberty, and we have confirmation or bar and bat mitzvah. People go through marriage, we call it a sacrament. Margaret Mead said it best. When a person is born we rejoice; when a person marries we jubilate; but when a person dies we pretend nothing has happened.

Well, something has happened. We commemorate it in meaningful ways, to remember not only that the person died, but to remember that the person lived. There's nothing like old photograph albums and going through and remembering. Because while death ends a life, it doesn't end the love that you have for that person.

Talking with Children — and Listening

When I speak to children now I sit on the floor, I take off my coat. And they will tell me things they would never tell me otherwise. Because I'm on their level. I'm face to face with them, looking at them.

But what do you say? Mostly, just be there, just listen. And that's the hallmark of this place, the Caring Place — you listen to the children. We listen to the people who are coming to us.

There is a Yiddish aphorism — We have two ears and one mouth, so we can listen more than we speak. You don't have to speak. Love understands love; it needs no words.

It's listening to where they are and to what they think of what's happening in their life. What children really want from us is support. I think the times I am most ineffective is when I'm so interested in telling people how smart I am, I'm not listening to where they are. It's trust, it's touch, it's talk, it's time, it's being with them. What the children have taught me is what this organization, the Caring Place, is all about. It's care.

We are there to be with them. It's our presence. One of the most important things we can let children know is we are there. It's the closeness that we bring. Just being there, listening and tolerating silence. Sitting and holding their hand, which is the most important part of all.

What can we say
There's no reason to ask, "How are you?" because the child will just say fine. That's what you would say. You can say, "It must hurt so much." "What have you been thinking?" "Tell me about yourself?" We can ask open-ended questions.

And, we have to be ready for those moments when the child is ready to talk, and they are only moments in life. You can say, "If you would like to talk, I'm here. And I want you to know, it's been pretty lousy for me since dad died. And I'm frightened too. Let me tell you some of the things I remember. And maybe some of the things you remember." You can gently invite them to talk.

We have to use the right words when we speak to kids. So many of us when we talk to kids are afraid of that four letter word, DEAD. So we use other words instead. It's important to just say "dead" and "death" and "die."

It's important to mention the person's name. Many people don't even want to mention the person's name, because we think this will create even more problems. Please say that name. If we can talk about their death, then maybe we can talk about their life.

And on their birthday, their anniversary, when holidays come around, call up and say "I'm thinking of you." Write down the anniversary of the death, and call them then. For everybody else it's just another day, just another day in June. For them it's a day that lives in infamy. It takes a second. But it means so much.

What not to say
Often we don't know what to do with people who are going through the loss, so we come up and say I know how you feel. Nobody knows your pain. It's your pain.

Or people say, "You have three other children." No one ever replaces that child who has died.

I used to say well, "She lived to a ripe old age." But I don't say that anymore, because my Mother died at 92 and everybody said well, you should be so lucky she lived that long. But it was still my mother, and it still hurt. So I don't say it any longer.

You can't take away someone's pain
I cannot stop you from suffering; that's not my goal. The children who are coming here are suffering. But I can stop them from suffering for the wrong reasons. You can say to them, "I didn't come here to stop you from your pain." All of you who are going through the loss of people who are close to you, how dare I try to take it away from you?

I can't take away your suffering. But I can help to stop you from suffering for the wrong reasons.

Children and Funerals

What we know now is that children understand their inclusion far greater than their exclusion. Good mental health is not the denial of tragedy, but teaching people of all ages how to live with tragedy. Allow children to participate in the grief process, let them even participate in terms of what they might like to write

It is better for children to see what's happening than for them, with their vivid imaginations, to come up with their own explanations. I would allow them to go to the funeral if you explain what is happening, and if you say, "If you would like to go, you may go. And whom would you like to be sitting with?"

And it's not only good for the children to be able to attend a funeral, it's good for the adults who are there. Sometimes, after a death, people say, "I don't know why I should go on living." They see a little grandchild playing in the middle of the floor, and sometimes it's better than any quotation from the scriptures. It says that life goes on.

And all I can say to all of you is how blessed you are. Because the Caring Place is a blessing. How blessed we are that we can acknowledge our grief, that we can share it with our children and listen to where they are, even though they may not be where we are.

I've learned 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. And 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 with my life? How am I going to 'ennoble ignoble misfortune'? How can I turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones?” Because the people who have done the most in life are those who have been through pain, and because they know they have made the world a little bit brighter for all of us.

I close with sounding like a clergyperson for the first time with a love story. It's from the Song of Songs, attributed to Solomon. It talks about the love of two people; it reads, "Behold thou art fair, my love, behold thou art fair. My beloved spake unto me and said, Rise up, my beloved one, my fair one, and come away. For lo, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth. The time of the singing of the birds has come, the voice of the turtledove is heard in the land. Behold, thou art fair, my love, behold thou art fair."

And then the writer, perhaps Solomon, realizes every love story has to end in tragedy. Did you ever think of that? We have to say goodbye, separation, death. And so it ends, "For love is stronger than the grave, many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it. For love is stronger than death."

And the words of Khalil Gibran: "You can give your children your love, but not your thoughts because they have their own thoughts. You can house their bodies but not their spirits, because their bodies dwell in the house of tomorrow which you can't even enter, even in your fondest dreams. You may seek to make them like you, but do not try because life goes not backwards, nor tires with yesterday."

And then we go on living. Edna St. Vincent Millay said, "Life goes on, I know not why." I think it's the best statement of all. And you don't know why. But to go on living doesn't mean to forget. It doesn't mean to love less. It means to go on with memories that never die. So when we deal with our children, when we deal with ourselves, be gentle. Be patient. Accept what you are, at this moment. Express to people who will listen; if you have one good friend, you're really blessed. Learn how to commemorate it. And to go on living is what you've done. You've turned a stumbling block into a stepping stone. The people who have changed in life are not the people, you know, you have led the great life. Terrible things happen and as a result they've done things in their life because they know what's happening.

Listen to them, hold them, share with them, and after they've talked about themselves and validated their feelings, help them to go on living. And to go on living doesn't mean to forget, it means to go on with memories that never die. Because even though for so many of us in this room, even after days and weeks, even after ten years, there's still a break in that heart. You see that butterfly, we're still here, life is here, love is here.

"I am here for you, you are here for me, we are here for each other." Shalom.