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We had to learn to help each other, not go through pain on repeat

Published on Jan 25, 2024

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 16th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on January 25th, 2024. The article was written by Vira Kuryka for Reporters Media and was translated for n-ost by Tetiana Evloeva.

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How families of missing persons unite to support each other through anger, hurt and confusion

Stefaniia’s son went missing in action. Halyna and Liudmyla can relate: their sons also went MIA, as well as the husbands of Iryna and Olena. Since early 2022, over 26,000 people have gone missing in Ukraine — which means just as many families living in suspense, waiting, and experiencing what mental health professionals call ‘ambiguous loss’.

In the western Ukrainian city of Chervonohrad and two other communities in the Lviv region, families of military personnel who went MIA join together in support groups, in a project called Living, Waiting [Жити чекаючи]. Their example can be of value to other communities going through the same uncertainty.

Two mothers bonded by loss

Halyna is a 59-year-old mother of three sons, all of whom joined the army and were deployed on the frontline. Her youngest used to write to her every day, no matter what. When he was sent to the UK for training, and after he was deployed, he kept writing to her. Now, scrolling through the photos that he sent her, the woman can’t help but see deep sadness in his eyes — back then, he used to add light-hearted captions like, ‘Don’t worry, Mum, I’m well-rested, well-fed, strong and smart.’

Her son went missing in action in the Donetsk region, soon after his initial deployment. Halyna was beside herself with despair and used to wish that her heart would just stop, to save her from utter forsakenness. It was then that she saw her husband cower like a dog:

“How can I live through this all alone?”

Halyna begged for his forgiveness. He was right: why would she wish to leave him like that? They had to wait, together.

Her husband, who was retired and in poor health, brought Halyna to meet other families like theirs. She says that when she first joined the group, she was concentrating so hard on keeping herself together, that she couldn’t hear what the others were saying.

He also boarded a volunteers’ bus, and went to the village where their son had gone MIA.

Liudmyla is a 50-year-old mother whose son went missing in action in the Luhansk region over a year ago. She says that her son is a kind soul. Whenever he saw someone tripping over, he would rush to help the person up. He loves cats and dogs. His cat, Liova, is currently staying with Liudmyla. When he was home, her son even took his cat grocery shopping, carrying him inside his jacket. He used to tell the cat: “Come on, Liova, pick the yoghurt that we’ll be eating today.”

When the full-scale war broke out, Liudmyla begged her son not to leave her — and he promised to stay with her at least until he got drafted. In late March 2022, he received a draft notice.

“I was the one to open the door to the drafting officer, and for the longest time ever, I blamed myself for that, not understanding that this [her son going MIA] wasn’t my fault.”

That feeling of self-blame was the reason why Liudmyla decided to help others.

Now there are over seven dozen families participating in the Living, Waiting project.

Unending hurt “has come to stay”

Anastasiia Zhydkova works for Mental Health For Ukraine (MH4U), a project supported by the Government of Switzerland. Initially launched four years ago as part of Ukraine’s healthcare reform, the project was meant to support mental health services at a national and local level. Anastasiia is responsible for coordinating support for people affected by the war. In the spring of 2023, the Project took charge of families of the military missing in action.

“Some communities had already put effort into dealing with this challenge, however, they lacked the knowledge to do that properly,” explains Anastasiia. “Back then, families were going through ambiguous loss and lacked access to professionals and programs in their communities that would help them in their predicament. After all, Ukraine never had such a surge of people going missing, and this unending hurt from deep within has come to stay.”

So the Project’s team partnered with Metta, a Lviv NGO working with the military and their families since 2014. Together, they came up with a plan to support families in Drohobych, Mykolaiv and Chervonohrad. They decided to name this project ‘Living, Waiting’, as both words hold equal significance.

“We wanted to form support groups where those families would be able to connect, spend their time together, and support one another when and as much as they needed. We brought them for training to Lviv in May 2023, and they returned to their respective communities.”

Those female assistants, whom Anastasiia defines as facilitators, are the backbone of their communities.

“Their work with the families of MIA begins with those families getting the news of their close one going missing in action,” explains Anastasiia. “The facilitators offer them support while going through all the procedures, through filing all the necessary documents. Sometimes they even write applications for those families — not just because the facilitators have personal experience, but also because the relatives are often elderly. In the smaller communities, many do not know how to use emails and social media, and have no idea what to do.”

Yuliia Stadnytska, who works with the project as a mental health practitioner, explains that those support groups become a safe place where families can voice their pain, anger and hurt, and finally feel their voice is heard. Families of those MIA have to keep in touch with the military drafting office and deal with the police, who are often overworked and understaffed and thus their communication to parents of those MIA can come across as rude.

“After the initial contact is established,” explains Yuliia, “our facilitators stay in touch with the people who are willing [to assist], inviting them to common events like pizza-baking, drawing classes, concerts or hiking trips to the mountains. There, people get new experiences, uncover common interests and get a tiny bit of positive emotions.”

The aim is to keep in touch with families suffering from such loss, and help one another feel better, even for a short time. During the next stage, our facilitators start holding mutual support sessions among their peers.

Overall, the Living, Waiting Project is currently taking care of 172 families in the Lviv region. As of now, MH4U and Metta are working on a guidance manual for other communities seeking how to help families going through ambiguous loss.

According to Anastasiia Zhydkova, the communities have to first and foremost acknowledge the problem. That is, do their research on how many families with that status are living among them. The next stage is creating a road map for those families, detailing the actions they have to take and the help that’s available to them. They also need to seek partnerships to train the initial responders, who establish first contact with the families (police officers, social workers, military officers and clergy), and educate them in the specifics of living through an ambiguous loss.

“After this is done, they have to gather active family members and ask them what they would prefer the support to be, and then treat them as peers,” shares Anastasiia Zhydkova. “It’s up to the communities to focus on the families of the persons who went MIA and develop respective services for said families. What the communities shouldn’t do is wait until they get clear instructions from the State. On the local level, you always know the families and understand their needs and resources better.”

“People here don’t ask meaningless questions, they know what it’s like

Oksana Honcharuk is a facilitator at Living, Waiting in Chervonohrad, a small mining town in the north of the Lviv region. A military wife whose husband is both a veteran and currently deployed, Oksana lost a close family member, when her cousin went MIA. The two wings of the family used to meet for fishing excursions, and Oksana dreams they can get together again.

Oksana’s initial communications with MH4U and Metta were strained, to put it mildly.

“It was a heady brew: in a meeting initiated by the Township, people came in hope of getting some updates on their missing loved ones, only to be offered mental health support instead… they were having none of it. Some people were shouting, others were leaving with a door-slam.

“People were sceptical. ‘How can you help us when you don’t know our pain?’ The mood only shifted when people were told that the facilitators themselves had actually gone through this same experience.”

After that meeting, thirty-three families left their contacts on a piece of paper.

Today, the Living, Waiting Project has its own office in the Military Hall in Chervonohrad. The township even paid for the bus and the fuel for their first joint field trip.

“We started with visiting historical sites out of town,” recalls Oksana Honcharuck. “I remember how we first boarded the bus. Everyone was gloomy and quiet, keeping to themselves. By the end of the trip, people were talking away. Having started the get-together with tearful eyes, people were starting to smile.”

Others joined the group from day one — like 86-year-old Stefaniia, whose only son went missing in action. She was the first one to ask, “Can I come?” Later she shared that keeping company of other women like herself makes her feel better. In contrast, there was Halyna, whose youngest son went MIA and who initially refused to attend — her husband literally had to beg her to come along.

All three births of Halyna’s sons were difficult, and the worst was her youngest. The woman says the newborn was large and pink like a piglet. When he first cried, his mother fainted.

Today she seems to have regained some of her composure. She credits this to her being able to get back her two other sons from the war. A law excuses people whose close relatives have gone MIA from military service.

When Halyna was first informed about her son going MIA, her husband rushed to the Military hall where he met the ladies from Living, Waiting. During her first sessions with the group Halyna did not just keep silent, she struggled to breathe.

“I didn’t want to see anyone, didn’t want to hear them. I was trying to wrap my brain around the conversations that were held. I was perplexed: how can the people here be smiling in the face of such sorrow?

“I didn’t feel better. I didn’t even register anything, except for the faint feeling that I wanted to visit another session. Because… people over here don’t ask meaningless questions about how I’m feeling or whether I spend my nights in tears, they just know what it’s like.”

Halyna preserved the memory of the first hiking trip she took with her son in the mountains, specifically the stations of the cross they undertook.

“So with every step, I was reliving my pain over and over, but that time, I was reliving it with a kind of respect,” she says.

Halyna kept thinking about how her son received his draft notice when he was out fishing. Before that, he came by and brought her a packet of her favourite coffee. He found his mother in the garden, digging up the earth with a shovel. Halyna often mused on what would have happened had she just dropped her shovel and invited him for coffee instead. Would that have made any difference? She felt guilty. The mental health practitioner working with the group told her that wasn’t the best way to cope, and that she could write down her feelings. Who is to blame? Halyna wrote that the ones to blame were the military drafting office, the war, and Russia. First and foremost, she blamed Russia.

50-year-old Liudmyla working as a facilitator in the Project is also a mother of three. Sixteen months ago, her son went missing in action in the Luhansk region. One day on his way to his operating site, which he never reached. At that moment, his comrades in arms recall a heavy shelling. On that very morning, Liudmyla talked to him over the phone. Her son was about to receive a parcel she had sent him, with his T-shirts and some snacks. The parcel had reached its destination, but there was nobody to pick it up. It was returned to the sender.

“I decided to become a facilitator because I had certain experience in dealing with the situation,” she says. “I got to know who to call and how to talk to them. When I was just beginning my search, they told me in the military drafting office to just sit and do nothing. They even failed to mention that I had to file a report with the police! I’ve travelled that path, and now I feel that I can help others, and in doing so, help myself.”

Liudmyla recalls how during their initial meeting, people wanted to share their stories.

“People were speaking in turn, in a circle, and crying over their stories. And then we said, ‘Now we stop and only talk about ourselves’. We were discussing how to survive a situation like that, and how to temper ourselves for waiting with hope. We had to learn how to help one another, not just go through our pain endlessly, on repeat.”

Suffering without closure: the hurt of families of the missing

Ivanna Adamchuk, a local mental health practitioner working with the Chervonohrad group, says the families of missing people are experiencing ‘ambiguous loss’, which is suffering without an easy closure. That suffering has its beginning, but it’s hard to tell whether it will have any closure. People spend months, years even, living in that suspended state:

“The goal for our communities is that the families can reclaim their lives,” she says. “Our country has never encountered ambiguous loss on such a scale before, so both the communities and mental health professionals have to learn how to work with that state. Our groups unite people with shared experiences and shared heartbreak, and they come together wanting to help one another. One can see some similarities in Alcoholics Anonymous and the like. It’s the concept of group power: while everyone’s experience is different and they have different coping styles, people come together to create a shared space where everyone is understood, where any emotion is okay, and where nobody will be made to feel out of place.”

Ivanna Adamchuk doesn’t participate in the sessions directly. While she was present at the beginning, she now only offers advice to the group leaders. She also offers personal counselling —but families don’t seek such services often. They mostly make do with the group sessions and talking to each other.

After six months spent with Living, Waiting, the mental health practitioner can see the change in families.

“One woman was complimented on her looks on her way to church today, and she accepted that compliment,” she says. “Before, she would lower her gaze and be engulfed in the overpowering sense of guilt (her husband went MIA, and she dares to look good!), but she worked through that guilt and is looking to discover her inner strength. Increasingly, it’s our female group members who offer the topics for our sessions. They want to discuss innate resources, anger, and stress. We study those concepts and learn how to control them — and what we can control doesn’t scare us as much.”

“I do not feel better, but I want to sing with you”

Olena is fifty, and her husband volunteered in the early days of the full-scale war. He later explained that somebody had to volunteer, and who is better fitted for defending the country than him, a person who has lived a good life, and had already checked off list the experiences of “planting a tree, building a house, raising children”. After spending some time in training in Chervonohrad, he was deployed to the East of the country in May. Olena shares that they spent 30 years together in love, cohesion, mutual respect, and happiness, having just the right amount of everything they ever wanted.

One day Olena got a text on Telegram messenger, saying that her husband had gone MIA and she had to come and get the official notification. She read that text message at work, and lifted her face to her colleagues, but couldn’t speak a word. Just like in that fairy tale The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen, where Elisa, bound by the vow of silence, knitted shirts for her brothers to save them from the curse. Olena somehow thought that if she said a single word, surviving until the evening would be an impossible task.

Iryna was forced to flee her native Crimea with her husband and two young children right after the so-called referendum in 2014, following Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. Her husband insisted that they couldn’t stay, as war was coming. They celebrated their son’s second birthday in a village near Chervonohrad where they moved. Back in 2014, her husband volunteered and was deployed to the frontline. Since then he was a professional military officer on rotation. The last time his family saw him was in January when he was let on a short leave from Bakhmut.

Iryna’s husband called her before Easter and told her that he was going on a mission, warning his wife that, as usual, that meant she would be unable to reach him for a couple of days. The last message from her husband came on Sunday. Two days later she got a notification that the military had lost contact with her husband’s entire group while they were on a combat mission

In May, Russian mercenary force PMC Wagner Group posted a picture of her husband’s military ID, offering no details about whether he was killed or captured. It took Iryna a long time to start going out of her home, or even smiling again.

One moment at home, she laughed at something funny, and her 11-year-old son rushed into the room, and asked her: “Have they found dad?”

Later, Iryna joined the sessions with other women and started going on field trips with them.

She still does not feel better, but before last Christmas, she said she really wanted to sing carols with them.