Phyllis R. Silverman was a public health graduate student in the early 1960s when she had her “first contact with grief” while developing a program through Harvard Medical School. Looking back decades later, she recalled that she initially resisted the chance to study the emotions of those whose spouses had died.
“When I was first offered the opportunity to work with the widowed, I said I was not interested in doing anything related to death,” Dr. Silverman wrote in “Lessons I Have Learned,” a 2013 article for the British Journal of Social Work. “I closed my eyes when I went by a cemetery. I went to my first funeral when I was 28. It was the first family funeral to which I was ever invited. In my family, it was a given that children did not go to funerals. I was not ready to start coping with death with the offer of this position.”
Indeed, a simple, practical need prompted Dr. Silverman to take the job that launched her career when she created and directed the Widow-to-Widow Program. The position came with a typist, a valuable fringe benefit for someone who was finishing a doctorate and had a lengthy dissertation to prepare. Over the next 50 years, Dr. Silverman wrote articles and books in which she challenged the accepted notion that grief is something to “get over.” Through her work, she described bereavement as a process that shapes life and never really ends.
Dr. Silverman, who formerly was a professor at the MGH Institute of Health Professions, died last Friday in her Lexington home of complications from cancer. She was 88, and her final paper was accepted for publication while she was under hospice care.
The lessons she learned about bereavement were as important for her own life as they were for the grieving adults and children with whom she worked. “The original program taught me a great deal,” she wrote in a 2004 edition of her book “Widow to Widow: How the Bereaved Help One Another.”
“Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that I have to accept death as part of life,” she said, adding that she initially resisted doing so. “I have now found a place for it in my life and the lives of my family. I accept my vulnerability.”
Among the concepts she explored was that the living have continuing bonds with loved ones who die. The phrase became the title of the 1996 book “Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief” that she edited with Dennis Klass and Steven L. Nickman.
In her British Journal article, Dr. Silverman wrote that it was easier to find a language that was compatible with the experiences of the bereaved “when I stopped thinking of grief as an illness that ends. In its own way, grief lasts a lifetime. There is no universal or fixed schedule for grieving.”
That was particularly true for children, she concluded while serving as project director and co-principal investigator for a longtime study examining how the death of a parent affects school-aged children.
In her work studying children and adults, Dr. Silverman also stressed that researchers have much to learn from those whose emotions they examine.
In 2013, her colleague Irene Renzenbrink gave the introduction when Dr. Silverman received the 2013 Herman Feifel Award from the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement. “You began to understand bereavement as a normal life cycle transition and perhaps more importantly, recognized from the outset that the bereaved are ‘experts in their own bereavement,’ ” Renzenbrink said.
Dr. Silverman wrote in the British Journal that through her work with widows, she “became very aware of how relationships with others frame our sense of self and how we live our lives, how we mourn, and how we change as a result of the death.” Her research also helped her understand that grieving “is different for men and for women as a result of the way they are socialized by the society in which they live.”
Among colleagues, Dr. Silverman was known for sitting quietly at meetings, knitting as she listened intently, and then offering an observation that cast the discussion in a new light.
“She dominated by not dominating. She dominated by listening, saying something that was pithy, and then listening again,” said her longtime friend Inge Corless, a professor of nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions who is part of the International Work Group.
“Her presence was felt not only by what she said, but simply by her being there and you knowing that she was listening carefully,” Corless added. “So by listening, she made a loud statement as well.”
Phyllis Rolfe grew up in Queens, N.Y., where her father, Joseph Rolfe, ran a grocery store and her mother, the former Rose Epstein, was a bookkeeper.
She majored in psychology and sociology at Brooklyn College and traveled to work with refugees and new arrivals in Israel, then a new country, after graduating in 1948. Upon returning to the United States, she graduated with master’s degrees from the Smith College School for Social Work and the Harvard School of Public Health, and received a doctorate from the Heller School at Brandeis University.
In 1966, she married Sam Silverman, a researcher who published in several disciplines.
“My parents had an amazing intellectual partnership,” said their daughter Gila of Tucson. For 50 years, she added, Dr. Silverman and her husband bounced ideas off each other and read one another’s work. “I don’t think either of them would have achieved what they achieved without each other,” Gila said.
Along with her writing and her work at MGH Institute of Health Professions, Dr. Silverman was most recently scholar-in-residence at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis, and previously taught or lectured at Smith and at Harvard Medical School.
“She had this incredibly powerful professional life but there was also this very successful home life,” said her son Aaron Askanase of Waltham, who added that friends knew they could count on his home for a meal or as a place to stay. Dr. Silverman “was able to do all the amazing things she did on a professional side, but continue to make a house and a home, and to cook the entire Passover Seder. It’s fairly astonishing to me when I look back on it now as a parent myself.”
A service has been held for Dr. Silverman, who in addition to her husband, daughter, and son leaves three stepchildren, Ann Limor of Milford, N.H., Bill of Missoula, Mont., and Nancy Tobi of Lyndeborough, N.H.; a sister, Sondra Patraker of Elmont, N.Y.; and nine grandchildren.
“We talk about grief in terms of symptoms, closure, getting over it, healing, and recovery,” Dr. Silverman wrote in her British Journal essay. “These words that we use all the time are the language of illness. There is no penicillin that will make grief all better. It is not an illness or a condition from which one recovers. It is an expected life cycle transition.”
Her family embraced the lessons of her work, and as she was in hospice care, her grandchildren played close by, aware and understanding that she was dying.
“It was very important for us to implement what she taught. We knew she was right, but we really experienced how right she was,” Gila said.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.