Close Menu

'I Can Hold Their Pain'

By Julie Riddle '92

As Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Vitalina Tarasenko M.A. in MFT '22 continued attending classes on Whitworth's campus, just a few months shy of earning her master of arts in marriage & family therapy. But her mind obsessed over the news pouring out of her home country. Her heart agonized for her parents in Poltava, and for her sister in Kyiv who, the first day of the war, got in her car and headed for Poland, and for her cousin, a soldier in the Ukrainian army. 

Tarasenko, who immigrated from Kyiv to the U.S. in 2014, couldn't think clearly. She forgot to eat and struggled to tend to her young son's needs. Back pain and headaches set in. "They call it shared trauma, when you are not witnessing the event but emotionally you are involved," she says.

An outpouring of support helped Tarasenko begin to cope. Her internship supervisor, Alita Crosby M.A. in MFT '22, insisted that Tarasenko take a break from counseling grade school students. A friend brought food to her home. Her professors extended her deadlines for several projects and shifted one course to the fall semester.

Tarasenko did what she could to support Ukrainians in need. She mailed power banks to her parents to charge their cellphones without electricity, and she and her husband hosted a family displaced from Ukraine (her MFT program cohort donated supplies including toothbrushes, bed linens and a mattress).

One day during class, MFT Program Director Doug Jones shared that he was organizing a trip to provide mental-health support for Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Would any students like to go? Tarasenko volunteered. 

That summer Tarasenko, Ilona Mikhalchuk M.A. in MFT '19 and Jones traveled to Poznan, where they provided therapy through Sweet Surrender Café Ministry. The trio worked 12-hour days, leading back-to-back individual and group counseling sessions and workshops on coping with trauma. "We wanted to serve as much as possible," Tarasenko says. 

Grieving Ukrainians shared their stories of suffering and loss and their anxieties about the future. Worried mothers asked how to help their children. "We provided the moms with skills so they can soothe their children," Tarasenko says. "We were there for only 10 days, and then we were gone. But the worry is still there. The fathers are still there [in Ukraine]."

In preparation for her work in Poland, Tarasenko sought advice from Dave Baird, an adjunct professor in the Whitworth School of Continuing Studies and a therapist for U.S. veterans. "He said, ‘Just remember: No matter how difficult their stories are, if you cannot hold their pain then you basically re-traumatize them, because they cannot hold it either,'" Tarasenko says. "And I thought, 'OK – I can do that. I can hold their pain.'"