Story #111. "I Sense His Presence": After Losing Her Son in a Battle, a Mother Establishes a Health Centre for Soldiers

September 7, 2023
The story of a strong and brave woman who did not despair but founded a medical facility for the military.

Natalia Tarabalka is a public activist and the founder of the "Warmth of the Winged Soul" health centre. She is also the mother of Ukrainian Hero Stepan Tarabalka.

UkraineWorld shares the story of an exceptionally strong woman who, after losing her son, did not despair but instead established a centre where military and civilians can come to terms with all the horrors they have experienced from war.

Natalia Tarabalka

Stepan had always wanted to be a pilot, so he worked hard to achieve his dream. Having enrolled into the Prykarpattia Military Sports Lyceum at the age of 13, he went on to, later, attend the Kharkiv National Air Force University named after Ivan Kozhedub.

Since 2014, the Ukrainian aviator had been involved in combat operations, flying fighter jet MiG-29. On the first day of the war, Stepan Tarabalka managed to intercept and destroy six enemy aircraft : a Su-27, a MiG-29, two Su-35s, and two Su-25s.

On March 13, 2022, Stepan Tarabalka, 29, tragically died in the sky over Zhytomyr Oblast, leaving his parents, wife, and son all devastated by his death.

Natalia visits her son's grave. Photo: Radio Svoboda

Natalia Tarabalka saw her son's death as an impetus for chasing her long-held dream: the establishment of a health centre that would serve as a safe-haven for all those who have experienced trauma, including military personnel.

The centre has been operating for a little over a year and the arrangement is still in process, but military and civilians alike frequently visit, each with their own set of needs.

Some come for psychological counselling, religious advice, or rehabilitation treatment for combat injuries.

The gym of the center for military rehabilitation. Photo: Facebook/"Warmth of the Winged Soul".

The centre, now with a medical license, is being transformed into a full-service medical facility by Natalia, where medical assistance will be offered free of charge. She, and her team of volunteers, are currently preparing bedrooms and a physiotherapy room.

"I wanted to create a space that was open to everyone, no matter if you are from the East or West, no matter your language, or religious denominations. A place that would be different from a typical hospital, where you would be able to communicate with people in a relaxed setting."

Natalia recalls the difficult time following her son's death.

I avoided falling into a state of despair. Society expects you to mourn, cry, and cover your head with a black scarf. I allow myself to laugh, joke, and even dance on occasion. My life goes on, I realise. 'Heroes never die,' as they say, and Stepan lives in another dimension. It's difficult to explain, but I still sense his presence.

"On Stepan's birthday in the winter, his wife reminded me of how he joked about living forever. I pondered those words. 'Stepan, if you're here, give me a sign,' I muttered one day. My husband called me the next morning and said he had a dream about Stepan. In his dream, he heard Stepan say, 'I'm at 4000 km altitude.' 'Do you see me?' My husband replied, 'We see you, my boy.'"

"My son did what had to be done. This is his decision, and it must be honoured. He needs to move on, and we're not going to let him go by mourning his loss. I was able to let go of my son, but there is still a void in his place. In such times, it is important to understand how to fill this void."

The Ukrainian military gave their lives not for us to grieve, but for us to live in safety.

Unknowingly, the people working at the health centre became united by a common pain. Someone has died in the war, someone is waiting for their son to return from the front lines, and someone's relatives are missing.

Natalia adds that everyone craves for communication and simplicity. People rely on one another, talk about their painful issues. They hold one another up.

According to Natalia, the word "rehabilitation" is generally frowned upon by the military. As a result, the centre strives to create a relaxed and welcoming environment.

The woman told of a soldier who was inspired to come to the centre by music. The man found a place of refuge because the centre has musical instruments, including a bandura [a traditional Ukrainian musical instrument].

It is impossible to predict which meeting will be the last in times of war. That is why, Natalia adds, you must do everything possible to comfort and assist a soldier while they are still alive.

"I saw Stepan mentally preparing for the possibility that he would fly away and not return. He had prepared his wife for this by resolving all issues with documents and debts prior to the full-scale invasion. Even with the possibility of not returning, he knew how to be happy and smile. My son had a lot to teach me. He liked to deviate from the course and fly over our village house, saying, 'How could I not get another look at my home once more?'"

On my birthday, he said to me, 'Mom, I love you.' I realised there was something else going on behind those words. It was as if he was afraid of not having time to do it.

"His comrades called him 'The First'. He bravely went out on night missions, never denying the most risky tasks."

"I always told him that no matter what the situation was, you shouldn't defend the government, you should defend the people. That's what he did. He died defending peaceful districts."

Nika Krychovska
Journalist at UkraineWorld