Europe

As Ukraine War Grinds On, Widows Try to See Life After Loss

Maria and her husband, Artem, dreamed of visiting the Grand Canyon. Alyona and Ilya fantasized about building a bar, with a stage for local musicians. Yulia and Oleksandr talked about taking a road trip in the mountains.

Their dreams endure. Only now, as war widows, Maria, Alyona and Yulia are being encouraged by a support group to consider pursuing them alone, as a way to deal with their grief about the deaths of their spouses in battle in Ukraine and to reintegrate themselves into society.

Among the many grim statistics of war — soldiers killed or wounded, territory lost and retaken, rockets fired and buildings destroyed — is the number of widows left behind. In Ukraine, where almost 20 months of fighting has settled into a grinding counteroffensive in which recent progress has been measured in yards rather than miles, that somber total grows every day.

Ukraine closely guards the number of its soldiers who have been killed, a figure it considers a national security secret. U.S. officials have suggested at least 70,000 Ukrainian fighters have been killed in action. If true, that means Ukraine may now be a country with tens of thousands of new widows.

“Our society was not ready to face such scale of grief,” said Maria Verbovska, 33, who had long planned to visit the Grand Canyon with her husband, Artem, before he died last year in the siege of Mariupol. “I do not know what to do with my feelings for him.”

Maria Verbovska’s husband, Artem, was killed last year fighting for Ukraine in Mariupol.Credit…via Maria Verbovska

For any country, coping with a long war requires understanding and addressing the needs of potentially thousands of widows. On the other side of this war, in Russia, that has included frustrations with the government over a lack of information about missing loved ones, and over payments to survivors. In Ukraine, support groups sometimes try to focus on balancing disparate needs: educating society to accept bereaved people, while encouraging widows to resume, and hopefully enjoy, normal lives.

Those who have lost loved ones in war often freeze in their feelings, said Viktoria Herashchenko, a co-founder of a support group for Ukrainian war widows.

They may stop paying attention to everyday events like family gatherings and stop reading the news, she said. They may forget about food, and even about their own children. Simple daily events, like seeing a happy family in a grocery store or a father playing with children at a playground, can become powerful triggers. And even the strongest relationships can fray.

“Some people ignore the widows, because they do not know what to say,” Ms. Herashchenko said. “The opposite also happens. Some people pay too much attention, and widows find it hard.”

Alyona and her husband, Ilya, who died fighting for Ukraine on the southern front last year. They had hoped to open a bar and music venue together.Credit…via Alyona Prokopenko

The initiative that created a support group for Ukrainian war widows is called I Live, My Love. It is one of a dozen or so organizations aimed at assisting the large and expanding community of widows in Ukraine.

Herashchenko, a psychologist, had experience helping Ukrainian army families since 2014, when Russia first intervened militarily in Ukraine. After the full-scale invasion by Russian forces in February 2022, she made helping widows her sole focus.

Her daughter, Yaryna, with whom she co-founded the initiative, is not a widow but, like nearly everyone in Ukraine, she has a painful connection with its human toll after recently losing a close friend.

Each new member of the group arrives with a very personal sense of loss.

Yulia Fatyeeva, 43, was a decade older than her husband, Oleksandr Khokhlov, when they met. She had not thought their relationship would result in marriage, she admitted, when they began dating. “But he proved to me that he was very reliable,” she said. “And we both really wanted a baby.”

When she learned that Mr. Khokhlov had been killed in a tank battle, she said she lost consciousness. She still finds it hard to believe he is gone. “In the coffin he didn’t look like himself,” she said. After the funeral she dreamed of him. “He stood up and told me, ‘I’m alive, don’t cry, I’m good.’”

Yulia Fatyeeva with her late husband, Oleksandr Khokhlov and their daughter, Alisa.Credit…via Yulia Fatyeeva

Widows, those running support groups said, often have a sensation that their dead spouses are still with them. It is a feeling that I Live, My Love tries acknowledges in its counseling by encouraging its members to hold on to the dreams they once shared as couples, and to do so without the sense that they have to leave their dead partners behind.

Each support group meets weekly for eight weeks and then once a month, to preserve a connection with others who have endured the same kind of loss. “It is important not to leave the women behind, but always be here for them,” Yaryna Herashchenko, the co-founder, said.

“I understand that it will never be as before, but I really want to be confident about my tomorrow,” said Oksana Tymchuk, who lost her husband in January. She knows others, even those close to her, will move on more quickly. “Some say I will suffer for a while and marry again,” Ms. Tymchuk said. “But all was wonderful between us. They don’t understand.”

Therapy, she said, “gave me the possibility to do something for myself.”

Oksana Tymchuk and her husband, Dmytro, in the last photo they took together before he died.Credit…via Oksana Tymchuk

In the frontline city of Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine, participants in I Live, My Love sessions are encouraged to re-adapt to being in society by spending time in group activities. They breathe together in yoga. They do one another’s makeup. They hike in the forest.

They begin, with the help of counselors and other members, to begin to see a future for themselves.

Alyona Prokopenko, whose husband, Ilya, was killed in trench fighting on the southern front in October last year, has had an idea for the bar they had planned to open. She will decorate it with printed quotations from what she remembers her husband saying.

Ms. Fatyeeva, who is 43, said she plans to fix the blue car she and Oleksandr shared, which had broken down, and drive it with their daughter on a mountain road.

Psychologists suggested that Ms. Verbovska follow through on the dream she and Artem once shared about visiting the Grand Canyon. She is considering making the trip. “I will see it for both of us,” she said.

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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