My loved one is at the front line. How to survive this period? What to do with anxiety and fear? Supporting advice from Babel

Oksana Rasulova
Yuliana Skibitska
My loved one is at the front line. How to survive this period? What to do with anxiety and fear? Supporting advice from Babel

Ангеліна Коткова / Kateryna Bandus / «Бабель»

After February 24, thousands of Ukrainian men and women joined the army. For their loved ones who remained behind, waiting for their return is a separate, difficult and exhausting aspect of war. Since March, the “Veteran Hub” has organized support groups for women waiting for husbands from war. Soon they plan to recruit a group of those who are waiting for men from captivity. The groups are conducted by Maria Stetsyuk, a psychologist and psychotherapist in training, her partner is also in the army. Before the full-scale invasion, Maria led support groups for women veterans returning to civilian life. Men can also join the work in groups. Together with Maria Stetsyuk, "Babel" explains what to expect from your psyche in such a situation, how to support yourself while the loved one stays at the front, and what questions from other people can only harm.

My partner is at the front line. I donʼt seem to feel anything, like Iʼm not alive. Why is it so?

The psyche reacts classically. At first, "freezing" is a kind of anesthesia in order not to feel emotional pain. At this time, you may say to yourself, "I donʼt feel alive." This is one of the defense mechanisms when a person experiences something new.

Later, an understanding of what is happening gradually appears, but the psyche does not agree to this. Emotions like anger or helplessness arise. People feel this because of the inability to accept the loss of their former life: "I lived so well, he was around, and now heʼs gone."

Next should be the stage of acceptance, when a person is able to rebuild a new way of life and can cope with experiences.

At all stages, a person is accompanied by anxiety and misunderstanding of how long all this will last. These stages can last differently, one can stay for a long time in them. Many girls say that they still live in February 24 and cannot understand how it all happened, are unable to do the simplest actions — to go for a walk without a loved one, to put on a dress that they bought together. Itʼs all too painful for them. This can happen if a person does not have enough support and doesnʼt take care of himself.

How to take care of yourself in this situation?

Do what makes you feel better — this is specific for everyone. In crisis situations, we donʼt always remember self-help methods, so I advise you to write a "crisis list" — itʼs like an "anxiety suitcase" for the psyche.

The list can be kept in a notebook or on the phone — it should be easily accessible later. Write down what worked for you before February 24 and try to see if it works now. For example, watch a TV series, take a hot bath, cook or order your favorite salad, talk with friends, go to the park. I advise you to separate the "external", where you are in contact with people, and the "internal", where you are alone with yourself. For "external", you can immediately write the contacts of people to whom you turn for support or just plan to do so — the phone numbers of friends, relatives, a psychologist, a hotline for psychological help.

Of course, something may not work under new conditions, so the main advice is to try. Even if you donʼt want anything, what if the body suddenly "remembers" that this specific activity must help, and you will feel better?

I feel very bad, I want to feel nothing. Is it possible to silence my emotions and feelings somehow?

It isnʼt worth it. Iʼm currently reading The Choice, Edith Eggerʼs book. I love one line from it: "Freedom is to accept what has happened." This is the place to start. Repressed emotions will only deepen the traumatic experience. So you have to live them and cry, speak out, go out into the forest and shout out loud if you want.

If you have the strength for it, you can take up volunteering — for example, collecting money for cars or first-aid kits, or weaving nets, or baking cookies for the fighters, because it is pleasant and involves fine motor skills, which is always reassuring. I know girls who tried to keep their hands occupied and eventually started making, for example, soft toys for their own Instagram store.

I canʼt stop thinking about the lost former life. What shall I do?

We need to remind ourselves that there are things we can control and things we cannot control. Anxiety is usually experienced very hard, because it has no specific object and deadlines. We can only influence our attitudes, decisions, emotions, and choices.

It is important to "ground" — what is called "returning to the here and now". For example: today is Wednesday, Iʼm drinking coffee in Kyiv, I havenʼt received any bad news right now.

If this does not help, apply breathing and body practices. A specialist will help you choose them, but you can try a few of the simplest ones. For example, just sit down for 10 minutes and concentrate on your own breathing, listen to it, pay attention to sensations in different parts of the body. It helps to abstract from the outside world. You can also describe what you see, hear or perceive through other senses — for example, say to yourself that "there is a tree in front of me, itʼs two meters tall, the leaves are green, it is a maple." Describe the color, sound, texture, smell, and so on.

Sometimes my partner doesnʼt get in touch for several days. I understand that this happens at the front, itʼs normal, but still I canʼt find a place for myself at this time. What to do with it?

Indeed, this often happens, with or without warning. Itʼs important to try to experience this not alone — with friends, psychologists or in a support group. If it helps you, ask a loved one to live with you for these few days — for example, a female friend can temporarily move in with you or you can move in with her.

You can also live this period with your loved oneʼs relatives. You can become a support group for each other. However, this should be done carefully — perhaps it will only increase anxiety if, for example, the mother-in-law constantly complains about how her son could go to war and leave her.

Physical activity helps someone. This is generally a very useful thing when it comes to supporting mental health. The easiest thing is to go for a walk in the fresh air, it definitely wonʼt get worse.

I myself try to get busy as much as possible during periods of no communication. I installed an application for planning and every evening I plan each next day hour by hour, breaking all the processes into smaller tasks. For example, I can have the task "go to the store", "have breakfast", various work tasks. I received hourly notifications about what I had to do at that time.

What can and cannot be talked about with a loved one who is at the front?

It depends on the specific couple, this can be different. Some find it easier knowing details, some prefer not to even know what direction the partner is in, so as not to read news from there and worry even more.

You should definitely not ask about the details of military operations, instead you can say: "Tell me what you can talk about today." Also, you canʼt ask questions like "Do you kill there?" or "Which of the friends has already died?". Donʼt say "who did you leave me for" or something like that. Share your feelings, but donʼt blame.

Often, girls and women donʼt tell their loved ones about their peaceful life — it seems inappropriate for them to talk about meetings with friends or movies when their partner is at the front. However, mostly it works the other way around: itʼs important for men to know that their loved ones are not cut off from the world, not isolated in their anxiety, but are living the life for which they are fighting and to which they will definitely return.

To keep your story going, you can write long letters, send daily messages describing the day, and add one photo or video each day.

War can change many people. How to react to the fact that a loved one is different than he was before February 24? Is it worth worrying about?

In general, life and man are a dynamic system. A loved one will definitely be different after the war, but what will happen afterwards is a separate topic of work with veterans. Now itʼs not worth worrying about. Just watch to see if there are critical changes that require specialist intervention -- for example, if the person on the frontline is having depressive episodes or panic attacks. In the meantime, support yourself and your loved one as much as possible. Maybe you will change together and get through it together without additional measures.

My partner and me are parents. How to explain to a child that dad is at the front and we are waiting for him?

Talk to your child in an age-appropriate way. Younger people are good at a slightly fairy-tale form — for example, dad went to protect his family and country, and there are many such dads. With older children, you can already discuss news, events at the front, come up with ways to support — for example, draw something for dadʼs unit or bake and give him goodies. Children willingly participate in this.

It is important to talk to the child when you have the strength for it, because children very easily pick up on the emotions and state of their parents. And be sure to remind that dad works for victory.

It seems that not everyone understands what I am going through right now. How to respond to human insensitivity?

When you hear something that offends or hurts you, stop this — say that you are hurt by what the person is saying and ask them not to do it again. If this doesnʼt help, then after the explanation, simply stop talking or communicating at all, even with relatives. The most important thing for you now is to take care of yourself, and not to maintain relationships that make you feel worse.

I feel bad, but Iʼm not sure if I should go to a psychologist. This is normal?

Yes, it is. Those who wait often think that they can do it on their own and just have to try harder. But there is nothing wrong with asking for help. In addition, there are now many free programs.

Sometimes the body simply needs medical treatment that will "fix" the biochemical processes in the nervous system — there is nothing wrong with this, it is also normal. There is no shame in that.

Contacting a specialist is also a way to take care of yourself. A psychologist will help with a crisis situation. You should contact a psychotherapist if you want a more in-depth treatment of internal problems. If you are apathetic, donʼt want to eat anything, canʼt sleep, feel aggressive — contact a psychiatrist, he will prescribe treatment. In each case, pay attention to the education of the person you are contacting — it should not be courses for a few months, but years of quality education. It is not necessary that this person also has the experience of waiting for someone from the front — but if you want it, then ask directly and look for just such a specialist. And donʼt be afraid to stop working with a particular person if he or she annoys you with something, even if itʼs an unpleasant tone of voice. Try — and you will manage to find a person who will help you.

I want to go to a support group. How to choose it? And what if someone there annoys me?

You will understand whether a particular group is suitable for you only if you come there. There will be conflicts, and thatʼs normal. Communicating with people who have similar experiences shows that you are not alone in your emotions and experiences. For example, girls see couples on the street and are angry that these men are not at the front — and they are ashamed of their anger. However, in the group it turns out that others feel the same way — and there is no longer the thought that something is wrong with you. The feeling of isolation and "abnormality" disappears. But, of course, there are people who simply do not like group classes — this is also natural.

I am not waiting for anyone from the war. What to say or not to say to people who are waiting?

First, never say "I understand you" unless you have had the same experience. Secondly, do not say "classic" phrases — "hold on", "someone has it worse", "you are strong, you can do it". You donʼt know if this person is strong at this moment and if they feel that they really "can do it". Thirdly, do not ask if there is news or if the partner is in touch — perhaps the woman is worried at this very moment, because she has no news. And lastly, donʼt comment on feelings and decisions. You canʼt say "I canʼt imagine how you live like this" or "how could you let him die."

The best thing to ask is: "How can I support you today?". Maybe a person needs to be listened to, cried with, walked with. Donʼt cut off communication just because you think itʼs inappropriate to invite a friend, for example, to dinner or a wedding. Do not decide for a person how he will feel about contact with peaceful life. Always ask her (or him) what is comfortable and what is not.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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