Ruth Anne Sadeh

In Terror's Wake:
Can We Help Those Who Lost Most?

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005
Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

       Born in Philadelphia in 1940, Ruth Anne Sadeh, MSW, moved to Israel in 1963. She is a certified family therapist and a group ther­apist. In addition to maintaining a private practice, she works for the Koby Mandell Foundation and teaches group therapy at Haifa University and The Western Galilee College. She also super­vises group work. She and her husband have four children and nine grandchildren. She can be contacted at betsadeh@research. haifa.ac.il.

What can we do for those immersed in the ultimate horror? In this account, a ther­apist tells why she feels that she can give more in a less formal, more personal modality.

I am Director of Women's Programs for the Koby Mandell Foundation in Jerusalem, Israel, which began about a year ago as a kind of grassroots response to the shock, chaos, and disintegration caused by violent deaths.

In May 2001, Sherri and Seth Mandell, Americans who had come to live in Israel several years earlier, could not find their 14­old-son. He didn't come home from school, nor did he appear during the evening or night. Search parties were sent out looking for him and his friend who had disappeared with him. The next afternoon two bodies were found bludgeoned to death. The boys had been stoned by Palestinian terrorists and were so badly battered that DNA had to be taken to identify them. It turned out that the boys had played hooky from school to hike in the Wadi, a dry riverbed about a quarter of a mile from their homes. The terrorists followed them and, seeing that they were alone, cruelly attacked.

Sherri and Seth suffered a terrible loss under the most brutal and abhorrent circumstances. Even the word tragedy does not effectively describe the experience. With the help of informal meetings with their close friends, who came to give support through the mourning process, the shock began somewhat to abate, and Sherri and Seth decided they wanted something positive to come out of their catastrophe and to help others who had suffered similar cataclysmic events.

They decided to perpetuate their son's name by creating and supporting programs that encourage others to build meaningful, healthy, and even inspired lives out of personal trauma and tragedy.

Gradually, the ideas and framework for the foundation were developed, and about a year after the murders a summer camp was held for children who lost a sibling or parent, with a second session for injured children. The camp was a great success. Children felt they could talk freely with each other and show their scars, both physical and emotional, without shame. They could feel normal, not different from everybody else.

Several support programs were initiated following the camp. The Camp Program now includes the summer camp, three-day camp sessions during three school holidays, and group activities and personal contact with the children throughout the year. There is a Friend's Program for teenagers whose friends were murdered in terrorist attacks, a Women's Program, a Family Program, and a Program of Encounters for Young Adults.

The Women's Programs, in which I have become so involved, both professionally and emotionally, divides activities into two groups: widows and mothers. We find that their needs are different and so we can best help them by offering different groups. Each month we conduct either a women's healing retreat for widows or one for bereaved mothers from different geographical locations and afterward set up support groups for the women who attended the retreat

The goal of the women's retreats is to nurture the women in a safe, warm, protective environment that soothes and heals some of their suffering. In two days of workshops and informal gatherings, the women share their pain, their joy, and their hopes. What does this mean? How can women who have suffered tragic losses come together and not create one concentrated depressed workshop? What is the mechanism or the power that allows these women to express their desire to go on living, their need to have a good time, their interest in what goes on around them? What allows them to be playful or tell funny stories? What allows all of these vital feelings to surface simultaneously with their pain and loss, as they weep out loud? Theirs is a roller coaster life of deep plunges of despair and surges of vitality and will to live. These women are struggling to sort out the chaos of their inner world and to find meaning in life.

To help alleviate somewhat their pain and loss, the healing retreats create a caring and nurturing atmosphere. The women stay in a five star hotel; in the rooms are baskets filled with sweets and toiletries. There are discussion or support sessions, art therapy and dance therapy, and in the evenings light programs. However, no less important are the informal encounters that occur at meals, between sessions, late in the evening, and during fun activities such as boating, hiking, or archeological digs. It is at these times that the real therapeutic venue comes to the fore. The informal social interaction among the women and between the staff and the women provides a stimulus for intimacy. There is a large ratio of staff to women, and it is the responsibility of the staff to be with the women as much as possible.

And here we have a very different approach to therapy. The formal limits that we therapists establish when we see clients do not seem to fit the needs of this client population. Staff members touch, stroke, and hug the women.

We try to envelop them in warmth and caring and loving. We listen, we do not reflect or interpret, and we join the women where they are. These women are in great need of mothering, of feeling taken care of. And that's what we do. At meals staff members spread themselves out among the women. Sharing a meal with another person can create a sense of intimacy. This kind of socializing is a normal form of human behavior and provides a sense of normalcy in an abnormal world. It is not normal for a group of mothers to come together to mourn their children. In joining the mothers in the normal aspects of eating, socializing, and fun activities, we affirm the fundamentals of living. We therapists join with the women to weave a fabric of normal and abnormal experiences. In a paradoxical way, this interface of extremes creates a healing milieu, providing a paradigm for life.

Perhaps some of the most powerful therapeutic moments at the retreat are created through the use of metaphor. A case in point is that of Nitza, a woman in her 50s who had immigrated to Israel from Tunisia as a child. Dressed very simply and with no makeup, she was a handsome woman with jet-black hair, a dark complexion, and high cheekbones who must have been a beauty as a young woman. The perpetual frown on her forehead told her story, however. She was the most recent bereaved mother in the group. We usually do not accept mothers for the retreats until 6 months after the death of their child, but Nitza was an exception. Her son had been murdered 4 months earlier. He was repairing a telephone line when the security guard accompanying him left to buy speakers for his car, and a l5-year-old boy, taking advantage of this breech of security, shot him. Nitza cried through most of the first day. In the late afternoon, some of the women and staff took kayaks out on the Jordan River. Nitza kept close to my side, making sure to get in the same kayak with me. I sat up front and rowed, with Nitza right behind me and Anat and Leah at the back. I have never in my life been in a kayak and certainly have never rowed. But there I was, leading these three bereaved mothers on a journey. Leah and Anat helped me point the kayak in the right direction by telling me how to row while Nitza was mostly silent. I rarely rowed straight. Leah kept bumping into the banks (the Jordan is narrow), getting tangled in bushes, pushing off again into the center of the river. There was an atmosphere of fun, and it was clear that the women felt safe with me. It was also clear that they were seeking help and guidance and needed someone to give them support and direction. It is interesting to note that as the two-day retreat continued Leah and Anat emerged as woman with strong coping capabilities. Nitza certainly knew where to sit to be protected: between two strong women and the group leader.

What a terrific metaphor for life, and one worth a thousand words! One tries to go forward, but if there are unexpected difficulties, if one gets stuck, if one gets entangled, one can find solutions and continue on. One can ask for help, as I asked Leah and Anat to help me. It was a lot of fun. We enjoyed our adventure together and the shared experience brought us closer.

 

The truth is that it gave me a sense of fulfillment. I felt that I had given something good to the women. There are times when I feel frustrated and powerless to help. What can I ever do to alleviate their abysmal pain? How dare we think that we can join these women in their pain, let alone alleviate some of their suffering? It is quite clear to me that the physical contact with the women is as much a need for the staff, who need to mother them, as it is for the women. So I think there is something here in the omnipotent good mother that satisfies the needs of the staff and those of the bereaved women. Below are some of the very tragic stories that give me a sense of impotence. How can I help them?

Goldie saw her husband, her daughter, and her son-in-law blown up in front of her eyes. The family was attending a Seder at a hotel in Netanya. A terrorist walked in, placed himself near the tables where people were sitting, and blew himself up. Dozens were murdered and injured. Goldie was hurt but survived because she had left the table to take her elderly mother to the ladies' room. So she was a few feet away from the suicide bomber; it was just a fluke, a coincidence. She has two other children who also survived. Now what can I possibly say to her? Where do I get the audacity to even try?

Reena lost her whole family in a blast about a year and a half earlier at a restaurant where her husband and two children had gone for lunch on a Friday afternoon. Reena was supposed to have joined them later. Altogether 15 people were murdered and 40 injured by a suicide bomber. The irony was that the restaurant is owned and run by an Arab Israeli family. I know this restaurant; I have eaten there. They probably have some of the best humus and falafel in the Middle East. Reena is a slim woman in her 40s, fashionably dressed. She told me that she had a good life with her family. She and her husband went to concerts and the theatre and had an active social life. They traveled often. In one second her life was blown to smithereens. It seemed to me that she must have once been a beautiful woman, but she looked absolutely haunted at the retreat. She was very pale and seemed to move aimlessly. She preferred not to join most of the sessions at the retreat but was more at ease in less structured interactions between sessions. This again filled me with a sense of my futility as a therapist. How could I possibly help this woman?

So I simply ask the women, how can I help?, but they say they do not know. They go to support groups, and they have close friends and family. Goldie, at least, has two children still living. Some of the women at the retreat begin to feel relatively lucky after healing of the multiple losses of other women.

At times, these bereaved women make heroic efforts to cling to life.

Goldie, for example, had a birthday party for her murdered daughter at her graveside. She invited friends and family to celebrate the life her daughter had lived. The guests rejoiced at having known the young woman, having had experiences with her, having loved her. There were balloons and music. This seems the essence of the interface of the normal and abnormal that I spoke about earlier. This is Goldie's paradigm of life, weaving in and out of theses extremes.

My first contact with the foundation was at a women's retreat on a balmy June day at a hotel in Herziliya, an Israeli town on the seacoast just up from Tel Aviv. I was there to observe the first day of the retreat before being hired for my job, and I was very curious as to what I would experience. I had never dealt with bereavement therapy on a large concentrated scale, only as individual therapies dealing with loss, death, and dying. And here I was to meet bereavement head on for a whole day. I was also somewhat concerned as to how I would greet these women and interact with them. I had always felt that grief should be respected as a private affair. Even when making a shiva call I felt that in some way I was trespassing on private space, even though I knew that the bereaved want and expect friends and family to come and mourn with them.

However, the retreat and my feelings about it defy all logic. As an Israeli, I have experienced death and trauma at fairly frequent intervals. I have lived in Israel 41 years, during which time my husband fought in four wars: the 1967 war, the War of Attrition in 1969-1970, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and the Lebanon war in 1981. I stayed at home with my four children, running into air raid shelters when necessary. Now the war is on the home front, and I am directly involved in the deaths of these women's children because I see and hear about them in all the media and mourn along with the affected families and my fellow countrymen. I and my dear ones are the next potential victims. So there is an element of intimacy, a feeling of shared fate that does not permit bereavement to be private. Here we all mourn together. We share anxiety and pain.

It is with these mixed feelings that I arrived at the retreat. When the women began to arrive, I was feeling fairly uncomfortable: I was about to start a new job, I knew neither the staff members nor the women, and I was having some difficulty facing the reality of the stories I had followed so closely in the media. The atmosphere in the luxury hotel was one of neutrality. The carpeting was soft under my feet, and with no sound to my footsteps I moved around almost unnoticed. The walls and furniture were light pastels, soothing to the eye. At times canned music filtered into my consciousness. This soft and calm ambience provided a foil for strong and stormy emotions to come. As the women began to arrive and we introduced ourselves, I noticed that they also named the terrorist act in which their child or children had been murdered. It went something like this: "Hello, my name is Hadassah and I'm from the bus explosion on the Carmel. I lost my daughter there." It seemed to be their identification tag. I have noticed this new identity connected with the murder of their children and the terrorist act in women at later retreats.

Gradually throughout the day I began to feel more relaxed. The staff managed to create an ambience of tenderness and caring. The women together with part of the staff did some movement and yoga exercises that included touching each other feet to feet and hand to hand, and we began to feel the tension diminish. There is something about physical contact that bypasses social boundaries and inhibitions and draws people closer to each other.

It is therapeutic for the staff to work with these bereaved women, because it helps us work through the tragedies that we frequently encounter here. Some of us have lost friends in terrorist attacks. When there is a terrorist act and we hear the news, we know we will be meeting with the involved families in a few months. When I do meet them and tend to them, care for them, speak with them, touch them, try to alleviate their pain, I feel I am doing something positive in a terrible morass of fear and violence, and gaining some control in a chaotic world.

I feel love and affection for these troubled women, whose pain and suffering somehow bring out the best in me and are a catalyst for me to give warmth and understanding, contain their wretched feelings, and offer myself as a solid rock to lean on. One staff member told the women that they give us strength by persisting to live and seek meaning from life. They have not given up on living. The women could not believe that they could give us strength and were surprised and touched to hear this. At times they feel so helpless and wiped out. They feel that those who have not lost their children to terrorism do not want to hear their story or do not know how to handle the story. They sometimes feel like outcasts who have been marked by pain and suffering, feelings that are frightening for other people to deal with. They feel that they are a burden and could not conceive of themselves as a resource for fortitude. Perhaps it is an entwinement of needs that provides the matrix for the healing retreats. The bereaved women, whether mothers or widows, are in need of nurturing, and we, the staff, are in need of giving.

The women seek meaning in life in manifold ways. For the most part they maintain their former roles in their families and try to respond to their families' needs, though they are not always successful. Some say they no longer cook or bake. Others report that they especially like to cook the foods to which their deceased children were partial. It makes the women feel their children's presence. The same discussion can be heard about the murdered children's clothing. Some mothers have never touched their children's clothing. They have never touched the room. Others like to see their other children wear the deceased's clothing. Once again it makes them feel the presence of their dead children. So some of the women find meaning in life by continuing as much as possible their former roles. There are women who continue active social and cultural lives. This is a conscious decision, and it is expressed as such. They want to go on living; they want to take pleasure in life. Not all of the women are able to accept this. Some women seek meaning in religion. If they were already religious they deepen their commitment. Others become religious. The question of belief in God comes up regularly. Jewish people have a very personal relationship with God. Many of the women are very angry and unable to accept a God who allows their children to be murdered. They shake their fist at him, so to speak, and demand to know why he has allowed such heinous crimes to be perpetrated on those they love. Their deep spiritual convictions have been shaken. Other women find meaning in seeking or continuing a relationship with God, believing that everything God does has a purpose. They can sustain a trust that whatever they see is only part of a greater plan that is beyond their understanding.

Much of the pursuit for meaning in life is expressed through ritual and commemoration. Israelis in general tend to pay respect to the deceased by repeated visits to the cemetery. Many bereaved mothers frequent the cemeteries weekly or daily. The women tell us about conversations they have with their deceased children in which they talk about the family and share their thoughts and feelings. From this private and intimate communion the women draw strength. It is the perpetual connection with the murdered loved one that makes the women strive to live. This is a paradox; through death there is life. Immersion in death can be a pathway to more vividly experienced living.

We observe that these survivors of devastating losses are still committed to life, not only in what they say but also in their spontaneous exchanges with others at the retreats, especially in moments of levity when they are joking and laughing. We can see the life in them as they focus on their bodies when entering the pool or relaxing and sinking into the Jacuzzi.

Now that I have led several retreats, I am more at ease and look forward to meeting the bereaved women. My need to soothe and assuage is always with me. I know that the women will come to this retreat feeling anxious and unsettled and carrying a tremendous aching burden. They don't know the staff or the other women and are curious as to what they will experience. They very much need to meet other women in their same circumstances. From my experiences with the retreats I know that these women will leave feeling very differently than when they arrived. For the most part they leave feeling loved, taken care of, relaxed and more able to deal with their bereavement and loss. At the retreat they acquire a sense of belonging to a community, and the loneliness and alienation they feel in their everyday lives is ameliorated. After the retreats, follow-up support groups continue to afford these women a framework in which to feel normal. What I have been describing gives me a feeling of competence as a therapist and a sense of fulfillment as a person. Helping these women helps me work out my own fears and puts me in touch with my own grief and horror. This is not an easy task. I need to contain the emotions of the women and at the same time cope with my own very similar emotions.

Unfortunately, peace for Israelis and Palestinians seems to be a far-off dream. This means that violence continues and that terrorist acts are perpetrated. Four days ago a father of five was murdered in an ambush. He left a wife and five daughters, including triplets a few weeks old. On the same day three soldiers and a civilian were blown up by a female suicide bomber, the mother of two children. I know that I will meet the mothers and widows of these victims in about 6 months.

This script was not a part of the safe Zionist refuge I sought when I came to live in Israel so many years ago. It is not the life I had planned for my children and grandchildren. I love Israel dearly, as does my family. We hope and pray for the end to violence and the possibility of a lasting peace. In the meantime, some of us move ahead with our lives and our families and try to comfort and heal one another. Does our clinical work help? I think so, but how can I be sure? I try to trust that my own commitment to listening to others, on-going self-awareness, and heartfelt respect and caring will make some difference.