Children of Ukraine's fallen soldiers spend Father's Day in new grief

Mourners visit graves of Ukrainian soldiers in Lviv, Ukraine, on June 19, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LVIV (NYTIMES) - In the heat of the late afternoon sun, Ms Oksana Stepanenko's sweat mingled with the tears streaming down her face as she rearranged the flowers on her husband's grave.

It was her daughter Mariia's first Father's Day without her father. The two had come Sunday (June 19) to visit the military cemetery on the outskirts of Lviv in western Ukraine where he had been buried weeks before.

"My mom picked them out," Mariia, 8, said of the wrapped toffee candies that she had placed next to the wooden cross on the top of her father's grave.

Mariia was one in a steady stream of grieving children who Sunday paid tribute to their fathers-turned-soldiers who were killed in recent weeks fighting on the faraway eastern front line in battles against Russian forces.

And as the graves of soldiers continue to grow in number by the day in the now overflowing Lychakiv cemetery, the grim reality is that there will be many more fatherless children joining the ranks of the mourning.

Another young woman, whose 26-year-old boyfriend had been killed weeks earlier, said that she had seen dozens of small children pass through the cemetery Sunday afternoon.

"It's just terrible," she said, her eyes swollen and hands shaking with grief.

As the intense fighting in eastern Ukraine continued to claim more lives, President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has a daughter and a son, praised fathers who had offered their service to the country.

"Being a father is a great responsibility and a great happiness," Ukraine's leader said in an Instagram post Sunday. "It is strength, wisdom, motivation to go forward and not to give up. And no matter how difficult it is - to protect and defend the most precious. Thank you, our heroes."

But for those dealing with the reality of losing a father, the grief is raw.

Ms Olha Hnatyshyn, 21, said she can't shake the feeling that her father, who was a long haul trucker before the war, will suddenly come home. "It's hard to believe he is gone," she said. "We still seem to be waiting for him."

Ms Hnatyshyn and her boyfriend rode their bikes to her father's grave to honour him on a day that she would normally have spent by his side. Her younger brother is taking the loss hard, she said, and has only come to visit the grave once.

But for her, the Lychakiv cemetery has become a place of solace. She visits each day to be near her father, she said.

"I take a blanket with me," she said. "And I sit down and talk to him and tell him how my day was."

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