Sparks of hope

How psychodrama therapy props up bereaved mothers

Psychodrama therapy (photo credit: ODED BEN-MOSHE/TOV ROI)
Psychodrama therapy
(photo credit: ODED BEN-MOSHE/TOV ROI)
For the past six years, a group of women have been meeting regularly at Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem. What initially brought the women together is the tragic experience that each has had to endure: the loss of a child in a terrorist attack.
Led by psychodrama therapist Tzippi Cedar, the bereaved mothers took part in psychodrama therapy sessions organized by the Koby Mandell Foundation, utilizing role-playing, spontaneity and drama.
The sessions recently concluded, and participants spoke to In Jerusalem about their experiences.
“I learned how to deal with a lot of things and I got tools for life from these sessions,” says Rivka, who asked that her last name not be published. “We didn’t just deal with our losses, but also with family relationships. When tragedy strikes you, you get thrown up in the air, and when you fall down, you need something to land on,” she says.
“Tragedy takes away the ability to look at things the way you did before,” says Rivka, whose son was murdered by Palestinian terrorists over six years ago. “Your life changes in a second – suddenly you wake up one morning with grandchildren who are orphans, a daughter-in-law who is a widow, and a son who is no longer alive, and you have to keep functioning.
“For me, this is why the Koby Mandell Foundation was so instrumental. I was at a very low point, barely able to do anything, when they contacted me.”
Soon after suffering her tragic loss, Rivka says, the foundation reached out to her and encouraged her to come to a daylong event organized for bereaved parents. “At that meeting, after I told my story, [foundation co-founder] Sherri Mandell put her hand on my shoulder.
There was something about that gesture that gave me so much strength. It was the starting point for me.
“I have always loved to laugh, and I like to be happy. My big prayer was that I wouldn’t lose my health, and that I wouldn’t become a sad and bitter person.
The psychodrama therapy group helped me to continue with my life and enabled me to work at being happy,” says Rivka, who made aliya 42 years ago from the United States.
She also notes that the group’s leader, Cedar, made the process significantly easier. “Tzippi is unbelievable. She has this energy and sense of humor, and a capacity to empathize and not judge.
Whatever you say goes. You can’t shock Tzippi. I felt very at home with her and the entire group. No one looks at you like there is something wrong with you.
You can feel normal.”
Cedar, 75, has been working for many years utilizing drama therapy and psychodrama with Alzheimer’s patients, children and teachers in schools, post-trauma parents who lost children to cancer, and victims of terrorism. Originally from New York, she made aliya in 1973. She has been holding psychodrama sessions for bereaved mothers on a voluntary basis with the foundation.
“It’s fascinating to see what psychodrama can do for people in terms of gaining insight into themselves,” she says. “We did a lot of empowerment activities to help the women appreciate who they are.
“This group went through an amazing process,” Cedar explains. “We finished on a high note. The sessions prepared them for living with loss, by facilitating gaining options, identification, a deep sense of belonging and, most important, validation of their innermost emotions.
Many of them are moving on, joining new activities, taking courses or finding jobs. They want to move on and not be stuck.
“One woman told me that she started the psychodrama therapy feeling completely frozen. It was very difficult for her to talk about her murdered son,” comments Cedar. “By the end of the last session for this group, the mother told me how much easier it was for her to talk and express herself.
“The key words and phrases in psychodrama are spontaneity, theater of truth, trust the process, and don’t tell me, show me, and that’s what we worked to develop in our sessions.”
Through the role-playing and role reversals, Cedar explains, the diverse group, which included young mothers and great-grandmothers, was able to explore different issues and family relationships.
“A grandmother who lost her daughter in a terrorist attack talked about how she had to find the strength to celebrate her grandson’s bar mitzva without his mother,” recalls Cedar. “I’ve worked with hundreds of people, and what moves me the most in these sessions is the fortitude that these women discover in themselves.”
Some of the most difficult sessions during the six years took place during the period in which 1,027 Palestinian terrorists were released in exchange for the return of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit in 2011. Among the Palestinian prisoners released were the murderers of the children whose mothers were taking part in the psychodrama therapy sessions with Cedar.
“The release of those murderers reignited the trauma once again for these women,” she says, “but they united together to fight against the release of their children’s murderers and against other releases in the future.”
There were 17 women who took part in Cedar’s sessions, including Sherri Mandell.
She and her husband, Rabbi Seth Mandell, established the foundation in 2001 after their 13-year-old son, Koby, was murdered by terrorists while hiking near their home in Tekoa. The foundation offers therapeutic healing programs free of charge for children and adults who have lost immediate family members in terrorist attacks or other tragedies. Group therapy activities include sports, music and art. Each summer, the foundation funds 400 bereaved children who attend summer camp in northern Israel.
“Bereaved mothers from terrorism need to be together,” Mandell says. “Psychodrama is a creative way for us to express everything going on in our lives and to process it. We had a great connection with Tzippi.
“With psychodrama, you’re able to get out of your head and see yourself in a different way. There’s a lot of power in a group process; we even have a WhatsApp group (called Theater of Truth) to keep in touch.”
Mandell says that she personally learned a lot from the mothers taking part in the psychodrama sessions.
“It was truly inspiring to see how these mothers, who have been through so much pain, still believe in Israel and have a great love and pride in this country and in themselves,” she says.
Cedar will be heading a new group of bereaved mothers from more recent terrorist attacks.
Although the sessions have ended, Rivka says that the most important tool that she has is her faith. “I have complete faith in God’s process,” she says.
For more information about the psychodrama therapy sessions or other Koby Mandell Foundation support programs, contact Sherri Mandell at