Rosetta Graham: Bringing Comfort To The Bereaved

April 21, 1991|By Randi Henderson

"I lost my son on April 13, 1990, Good Friday. It wasn't very good for me. . . . I was mad. He was my only child and he was taken away from me. It was really hard to live with my anger and grief."

Mary Williams

"My son was murdered in January 1989; he was 18. He was a child who basically didn't give me much problem. . . . at 18 his life was cut off so short. It's very painful for me to rehash. The pain is so great. I wake up with it and I go to bed with it."

Lula Johnson

There have been 88 murders in Baltimore this year. Beyond this grim statistic are 88 sets of survivors trying to cope with sudden, senseless loss and the often disabling grief that accompanies it.

Grief is no stranger to Rosetta Graham.

As coordinating counselor of the city's Family Bereavement Center, which works with survivors of murder victims, Dr. Graham encounters grief on a daily basis.

Usually, say the people she works with, she manages to ease the burden of their grief.

Those whose burden she eases see her as a person with special gifts to help others. But when Dr. Graham talks about her work, she describes herself as the recipient of gifts.

"If people can sit down and talk to you about their problems and trust you, then they have given you something," she says in her soft-spoken way.

A social worker by training, she had retired from Johns Hopkins Hospital in October 1989, after 22 years as a therapist and teacher. Less than two months into retirement she realized, "I wasn't ready to stop working. I was looking for fulfillment. Working at Hopkins was such a rich experience, it prepared me for a richer fuller life -- not retirement."

In March 1990, Rosetta Graham, who has a doctorate in social work administration and training, became the first coordinator of the bereavement center.

"We interviewed four candidates for the position," remembers city state's attorney Stuart Simms, who developed the idea for a center where close relatives of homicide victims could receive guidance and counseling. "Rosetta Graham stood out as a caring and compassionate individual."

Dr. Graham dismisses the suggestion that the work she does could be depressing and disheartening.

"I didn't think it would be very depressing," she says. "I have always been sensitive to working with other people's grief. I had worked with dying children, I had worked with the parents of dying children, I had worked with a disturbed population."

In her years at Hopkins, Dr. Graham used her psychotherapy training to help people cope during difficult times in their lives. The problems she encounters now are usually in a unique context, she has found.

"With murder victims' survivors, usually much of the grief comes from not having had a chance to say goodbye; there's no closure," she explains. "Also, someone has violated you, someone has taken from you what was yours."

The Family Bereavement Center takes a pro-active approach, seeking out survivors and offering them help, not waiting for people to ask for assistance. Funded by a grant from the state Department of Human Resources, the center also employs Robyn Singletary, a victim advocate, who approaches survivors of murder victims to inform them about the center and then helps them through police and judicial procedures, if they wish. All services are offered free of charge.

Dr. Graham works on a psychological level, conducting both group and individual therapy sessions. She finds special value in group therapy. "The support group helps survivors feel closer to another person who they feel can really understand them," she says. "A person can stay involved as long as they want."

It's certainly been a valuable experience for Lula Johnson, whose son Alim Salaam had been shot to death on the street. "I was definitely having trouble coping," she remembers. "My husband and I couldn't communicate. Our pain and grief were so hard, we didn't know how to share."

With the experience of group therapy she found "I could get beyond my feelings and reach out and cry and touch and help someone else. Everyone else there knew what my pain was and I could feel their pain and share it with them."

For Mary Williams, individual therapy has been the key to a new life. "Dr. Graham has helped me to realize that this is something I have to live with," she says. "Nothing is going to bring my son back, and she just helps me in so many ways to accept it."

Reflecting on how the paths of her life have led her into the work she does, Dr. Graham goes back to her early life in East Baltimore. Her mother died when she was 5 and her father, who ran a series of businesses, raised Rosetta and her four brothers and sisters. "What I do goes back to growing up in a community where there was so much concern shown for others," she says. "It is only by making a contribution, by enriching others' lives, that life goes on."

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