On Sunday, the family of Eugene Petino would have celebrated his 35th birthday, but instead, 34 of his relatives lit a candle in his memory.
They were among about 200 others who attended part of a worldwide candle-lighting ceremony at the Arizona Community Church in Tempe hosted by The Compassionate Friends Eastside/Mesa Chapter to remember a child or sibling who died. In some cases, the child also was a parent.
Petino, who had two sons, 15 and 8, was found shot to death behind the Goodwill near Rural and Guadalupe roads in Tempe on May 6.
“It’s hard to go through, losing someone dramatically, so fast,” said Petino’s younger sister, Michele Grajeda of Chandler. “We no longer have him around and don’t see him at the table. But being here is helpful because others understand what you’re going through.”
The room at the church was full of people who followed a real-life theme of writer Mitch Albom’s book and the Oprah Winfrey television production, “For One More Day,” which aired on ABC Sunday night.
Many of those in attendance remembering 50 children overall said in poems and readings they knew how they would spend that one more day with a child who died — on a fishing trip, at a ballgame, or simply sharing their presence at the Christmas dinner table.
“A lot of people here don’t want to put up the Christmas tree, but you adjust to the holidays and it’s hard to watch others laugh because your life has changed and everyone is out there celebrating,” said Gene Caligari of Payson. “Everyone needs some kind of an event to remember a child they lost, and this creates an awareness for those who are grieving.”
Gene and Barbara Caligari, the coordinators of the southwest region of The Compassionate Friends, lost their 12-year-old son, Brendan, to suicide in 2000.
Denise and Sean Dean’s son, Sean Connelly, also 12, died after he was hit by a car on Ray Road in Chandler as he was running from a swarm of Africanized bees attacking him during Labor Day weekend.
Robin Miller drove 45 miles from Casa Grande to light a candle for her daughter and son-in-law, Jacqueline and Edward Tapia, both 21, and sonin-law, Roy Marrufo, 27, who were three of six people killed in a head-on collision in Mexico coming back from Rocky Point on July 30, 2006.
Newly married, the Tapias didn’t have time to have children, Miller said.
“When you share with other parents, it gives you comfort,” Miller said. “When you share with other parents through this journey, it gives you healing. It doesn’t answer your questions, but it allows you to meet with others who have been down the same journey and you know you can survive.”
The Compassionate Friends meets the second Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. at the College View Baptist Church, 1810 S. Longmore, Mesa.