‘Reborn from the ashes’: Russian military widows try to rebuild lives


Lyudmila went through “all the stages of depression” after her husband, an officer in the Russian army, died in Ukraine in September 2022.

To try to overcome the grief, she set up a psychological support service to help other military widows deal with their loss.

“It was a huge shock. I didn’t understand what was happening. I felt like the heroine in a very bad film,” the 32-year-old told AFP in an interview, describing the moment she found out her husband had died.

For Lyudmila, who asked to have her surname withheld, her husband “died a hero… fulfilling his duty as an officer” during the first year of Russia’s offensive against Ukraine.

At the funeral, she said she managed to “remain dignified” — an “unwritten rule” for such occasions, she said.

She worked through the initial pain with the help of a psychologist.

First came denial, then anger, she said.

“You throw things on the floor, you break everything, because the pain tears you up inside,” she said. “You need to feel physically that you’re still alive, because inside you’re almost dead.”

– ‘Keep on living’ –

It was at this point that she discovered “Widow to Widow”, a book by the US therapist Genevieve Davis Ginsburg, and decided to help other women who had lost husbands during the conflict.

She took courses to become a trained psychologist and with the help of a veterans’ association launched a service offering free help to widows, provided by volunteer psychologists.

“Our aim is to make help available to everyone, not just those who can afford a psychologist,” Lyudmila said.

She said her mission was “to show women that life goes on, you have to live it”.

“We are born, we will die one day. That’s the key to accepting loss,” she said.

Although she now tries to distance herself from news about Russia’s offensive, her husband’s death has not changed her attitude to the conflict.

“I am first and foremost my husband’s wife, the wife of an officer,” she said.

After working 24/7 for the service she set up, fatigue recently forced her to take a break.

One of her former clients is Anna, a 31-year-old singing teacher, who lost her husband last July.

“I turned to a psychologist because it was so hard and unbearable,” she said. “Support from family and friends was not enough.”

– ‘Share the pain’ –

“During the sessions, we analyse all of my accumulated pain, which helps me calm down. I find the strength to carry on living,” said Anna, who also declined to give her last name.

Anna is also part of a small chat group on the Telegram messaging service for other widows.

“We support each other and share our pain. Nobody can understand your pain better than somebody who is going through the same thing,” she said. “It’s like group therapy.”

“Women write to me when their husbands are injured, missing or killed, when they are waiting for the bodies to be repatriated. I try to help them, to give them advice or the necessary contacts.”

Unlike Lyudmila, however, Anna takes a close interest in developments at the front.

“I read the news. I don’t want to ignore it, but today I see it in a different light,” she said, refusing to elaborate.

Alongside therapy, Anna said she finds calm in her work — giving music lessons to children — and through religion.

“Children are like angels, they are a source of goodness and positive emotions,” she said.

Lyudmila compared Anna and her other clients to a mythical phoenix that helps to “rise from the ashes” of despair.

“I help them to be reborn as beautiful birds, and then they fly towards a good, worthy and normal life,” she said.

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