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Healing the wounds of war: From art therapy to prayer

Bombed apartment building in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine


John Burger - published on 08/26/23

Children and adults, as well as soldiers, find help and hope in Church agencies such as Caritas.

A year and a half after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the statistics are staggering: Half a million Ukrainian and Russian military personnel have been killed or wounded. More than 540 Ukrainian children have died as a result of the hostilities. And a new report arguing that Russia is committing genocide in Ukraine documents “an escalated pattern of systematic atrocities,” including widespread targeted killing of civilians, using rape as a weapon, and forcing Ukrainian children into Russian “reeducation camps.” 

For those who grieve the loss of loved ones and for survivors of atrocities, the wounds of this war will last a lifetime.

“One day the war will stop on the territory of our country, but it will never stop in our souls,” lamented Iryna Dryhush, who works at the Caritas office in the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil. “The lives that have been taken cannot be returned, the broken bodies cannot be restored, and the broken souls are very difficult to heal.”

But already, even as Ukraine faces an uphill battle to turn Russian occupiers out of the east and south of the country, including the Crimea, efforts to heal the wounds of war have begun. Professionals and charitable organizations, including those of the Church, are working to heal physical and psychological wounds. Agencies that provided food and shelter to people displaced by the war in its early days are working to address the suffering experienced by civilians, including children and the elderly.

“Our task as Church”

A late June poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that 78% of Ukrainians had close relatives or friends killed or injured in the war. But even before that, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head and father of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said that “almost 80% of Ukrainians need some help to overcome their traumas — psychological, physical, and others.”

“Our task as a Church is to help heal the wounds of our nation,” His Beatitude said. He told OSV News that healing the wounds of war “will be the main pastoral task of the Church for the next 10 years, at least. I think that the future of Ukraine will depend on our capability to assist people in this process.”

Largely through the Catholic humanitarian agency Caritas and through local parishes, the healing efforts of the Church have already touched the lives of thousands of Ukrainians. 

A priest who directs the local Caritas in the western Ukrainian city of Kolomyya said that Church leadership wants its members “to be close to people who have these wounds, to heal those spiritually, just by being around, and to give people hope.” 

“The Church’s challenge is always to speak about hope, give hope and to build love around people and between people,” said the priest, Fr. Sergiy Tryfyak. “Only those things can help our society to heal.”

Fr. Tryfyak said there are wounds on various levels, and that there are social, spiritual, psychological, and physical wounds. His staff of 135 people includes psychologists, social workers, crisis managers, etc., and has helped about 130,000 people since February 24, 2022, when the invasion began.

“We understand that we can’t help everyone, but we see that the people who come to us and are receiving different remedies for their wounds are … on the right path to healing,” he said. “We’re ready to be with them, step by step.”

What saddens Fr. Tryfyak the most is that Ukrainians are beginning to speak of “children of the war.” He and others see how deeply affected young people are.

Children of war

Some of the children Caritas works with have seen and heard shelling for months. They overreact to the sound of planes, because they are the instruments that have brought bombs to their homes. They fear seeing anyone who is armed.

In extreme cases, there are children in Ukraine who have witnessed their own parents being killed or raped or tortured — and parents forced to watch as Russian soldiers rape their children, according to the previously mentioned report on genocide, issued by the New Lines Institute.

Tetyana Pryadko, a сhild psychologist from Caritas in the central Ukrainian city of Poltava, works with groups of children between 5 and 17 years old. “We provide socialization services, psycho-emotional support, team building and career guidance classes,” Pryadko said. “We organize active recreation and excursions. … Movement and team games and swimming classes have proven themselves [effective]. Individual consultations of children are held at the request of parents. And, as practice shows, the state of children is a reflection of the mental state of parents.”

Like others interviewed for this article, she spoke of the efficacy of art therapy, especially when dealing with the loss of loved ones, homes, and their normal way of life.

Growing up fast

Art therapy has been a big part of a summer Christian camp called “ArtArea” organized by military chaplains of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. The camp, in the peaceful setting of the Carpathian Mountains in far western Ukraine, hosted 60 children from Russian-occupied territories whose parents are in the military. Some of their parents have been killed.  

One thing that struck Fr. Rostyslav Vysochan, who serves in the chaplaincy of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, was the maturity of the children, who are 12 to 14. “In children’s eyes we saw the gaze of an adult,” Fr. Rostyslav said. “Yes, these are children, but already with experience.”

Not only in their eyes, but in their questions too. “They wanted to know what will happen to Ukrainian children who grew up during the Russian-Ukrainian war; how everything they saw, heard, experienced, spent time in shelters will affect them,” he said. “They ask about patience and suffering during the war, and ‘Where is God?’”

“We told the children that Ukrainians must go through this difficult path, be strong, perceive these moments as one of the challenges, and on the other hand, this is an opportunity to create a new Ukraine, to restore what was lost,” the chaplain said. “We understand that the sacrifices are great, that we are on the side of good, waging a just war, protecting life, that we have not attacked anyone, and we are restoring justice. We are at home and we protect our home – and the children understand this.”

The challenges to come

One segment of the population with particular heartbreak is the families of fallen soldiers. Natalia Dubchak, a veteran of the Ukrainian Army, has worked in the Department of Military Chaplaincy for the past five years. She herself lost a son in the war in Donbas in 2015.

“We started a project for military families who lost someone in the war,” she said. “Now I try to do something for people like me who lost someone.”

She and her colleagues formed support groups, which now exist in Kyiv and other major cities throughout Ukraine. They are led by priests and psychologists and meet monthly. People can discuss their feelings with one another and know that other members understand what they are going through. 

“It’s very, very important so people don’t feel lonely,” Dubchak said. 

The ministry takes military families to regions where life is quieter, to relieve the stress of being under constant threat of bombardment. Some trips are outside of Ukraine, such as a recent journey to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A recent trip combined this kind of “escape” to a quieter region, while also honoring the memory of fallen soldiers: a jaunt up Hoverla, Ukraine’s highest mountain, in the Carpathians.

Whether it’s children or adults, war trauma presents a challenge for caregivers on a very large scale, said psychologist Pryadko. “It is so collective and deep that it raises and intensifies all other previous psychological traumas that people suffered before the war,” she said. “This stressful state from the war often raises internal fears, injuries, wounds. Therefore, the specialist must be ready to work even with difficulties in parent-child relationships, with injuries received by a person in childhood.”

Pryadko works with about 60 children a day – six groups of 10. Since February 24, 2022, she estimates, she has worked with about 700 children who received treatment for three to six months.

She noted that priests and bishops have been crucial to the healing process.

“From the first day of the war, clergy have a constant word of comfort, support, prayers for Ukraine, for our people, for peace and victory,” she said. “The Church became a place of spiritual support in difficult times and to this day helps us not to lose faith and hope. The Church helps us not to give up and to do works of charity. The Church has been the answer to many challenges, and during this time prayer has united our country. So we continue to stand in faith, hope and love and pray for peace in Ukraine.”

The Church helps us not to give up and to do works of charity. The Church has been the answer to many challenges, and during this time prayer has united our country. So we continue to stand in faith, hope and love and pray for peace in Ukraine.

“The biggest problem is the minimal level of cultural awareness of the importance of psychological support,” she said. “Usually, the people of our region believe they can do it alone. And they ask for help as a last resort.”

But, another element is the solidarity Ukrainians have demonstrated during this war — and indeed since the war in the East of the country began in 2014. Iryna Dryhush, of Caritas-Ternopil, reported that there are a good number of cases when people come to Caritas for support, then become volunteers themselves and help and support others.

“In fact, this is the most effective technique: you help yourself when you help others,” Dryhush said. “People see that they are not alone in their experiences; their pain is not unique. Many other people are also experiencing tragedy, and such unity helps to get out of trauma faster.”

Such was the experience of Olena Krasheninnikova and her family, originally from Donetsk, who took refuge in Kyiv from the war in the Donbas, only to be further displaced when Russia began its “special military operation” in 2022.

She went to Caritas in Ternopil for basic humanitarian help at first, but found that volunteering provided emotional help for her, “not to get crazy because of doing nothing and just reading awful news,” she said. “I had to do something, so actually there were a lot of volunteers who just came there and were sorting clothes, sorting foods, giving packages to people who just arrived.”

“Plus, I met there a lot of amazing people who I take as friends now,” she said.

Now Krasheninnikova is on staff at Caritas. As such, she might be part of the team that will increasingly see soldiers coming home and requiring special help.

Likewise, Pryadko, the psychologist in Poltava, expects that the day will come when she and her colleagues will have to treat post-traumatic stress disorder “in its full manifestation, when we realize the scale of loss and destruction.”

Said Pryadko, “Therefore, I believe that the main challenges are still ahead.”

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