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The Grief of War: Understanding Our Feelings in Relation to the Conflict in Ukraine

The shattering of our safety of life in Europe is coupled with empathy for the Ukrainians

The Grief of War

The Grief of War: Understanding Our Feelings in Relation to the Conflict in Ukraine

Even if we are not directly affected, there can be little doubt that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine can leave us feeling anxious and depressed. What we are all experiencing in Europe, wherever we live, is a form of grief.

Like all animals, human beings strive for feeling safe and secure. When our body goes out of kilter, we feel that discomfort and try to make things right.

This explains our sense of unease when the world we thought we could rely on, that we took for granted, is suddenly and radically changed. That unease is as normal and healthy as our senses of thirst and hunger. It’s our early warning system to encourage us to put things right, but of course that isn’t always possible. That’s when the disruption to our world becomes grief.

It’s the grief that comes with a loss not necessarily associated with bereavement. It can come with divorce, retirement, or redundancy and with debilitating changes to our physical health. Nobody would suggest that from the comfort and safety of the United Kingdom our grief in any way resembles that of the people in Eastern Europe.

We can, however, say that we have been grieving our loss of safety since Covid-19 came on the scene. Just as we were beginning to feel it was safe to get on with our lives, along comes another ‘blow.’

This shattering of our safety of life in Europe is coupled with empathy for the Ukrainians. We identify with the people living very similar lives to ours. We grieve with them and for them, and we feel helpless. We struggle to claw back some measure of control with the blue and yellow flags posted on our social media profiles, with our donations, with our thoughts and prayers.

It goes without saying that the closer you are to the conflict, the more severe the shock to your sense of ‘normal.’ You can only imagine what it must be like for the Ukrainians to have their world changed beyond recognition in the space of two weeks, or to live in a bordering country where thousands of refugees are seeking safety. Added to that is the grief that so many will be experiencing from the deaths of those they love. Grief will also be felt by families having to separate.

It is important to the mental health of those fleeing the conflict that they find safety and security as soon as possible, so as to reduce the shock to their normal lives and minimise their grief.

If you cannot return to a situation that you knew before, it is possible to adapt to the new situation. People who are naturally resilient can adapt very quickly, while others may struggle with the loss of normal. You may have noticed some people coped with the Covid lockdowns better than others.

Whatever is causing our grief, there are ways in which we can help ourselves. It helps to acknowledge the distress of our grief rather than lock it away and pretend it’s not there, but at the same time we need periods away from our negative feelings.

Notice how the Ukrainians in their shelters are distracting themselves by listening to music and singing. If you find yourself negatively affected by the news coming out of Ukraine, think about rationing yourself from exposure on television and social media. Distract yourself with whatever you find enjoyable.

Any of us who has been bereaved of a close family member will know how important it is to make sense of events, to know, as far as possible, what has happened, and understand the thoughts, feelings, and behaviour in our grief. Mankind is a meaning-making animal. Making sense of our environment is key to our emotional and physical survival.

I have long understood through working with bereaved people that people are helped by making sense of what is happening to them. One reason for writing this piece is the expectation that those people who read it will be helped in making sense of their current thoughts and feelings. In the psychology trade we call this ‘psychoeducation,’ and we know it helps.

The ability to find meaning in the loss is the single most important factor in resolving personal grief. The act of making our own meaning helps us along a grief journey. You might have heard people say things like, ”He died doing something he loved,” “She had a long and active life,” “She’s not suffering anymore.” Often the role of a bereavement counsellor is to help the bereaved person to find meaning in the sadness of loss. When no sense can be made of death and no adequate meaning can be found, grief is often prolonged and complicated.

Finding meaning in wartime can also help. People talk of sacrifice, of giving their life so that others may have freedom, dying in defence of the motherland, or any other aspect of patriotism. When a loved one dies on the battlefield, it is easier to come to terms with your grief if you believe in the justice of their sacrifice. If the soldier who died was our son or partner fighting a war which we believe wasn’t justified, our grief might be harder to resolve. In our eyes, they died for no good purpose.

As the situation in Ukraine changes, so too will the changes to the world we know across Europe, including the United Kingdom. We have been told to expect a fall in our living standards, higher prices, and shortages. Everyone will be affected by their level of financial security and by how resilient they are. In our collective grief, the amount of sacrifices British people will endure for a ‘just cause’ remains to be seen.

About John

Dr John Wilson

John Wilson is a Bereavement Counsellor specialising in loss and grief for 22 years. He writes books on the subject and teaches other professionals to work with loss. John’s qualifications include Diploma in therapeutic counselling, BACP accredited and registered and PhD in grief counselling research. You can find out more about Dr John here.


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