ONEONTA — Dozens of community members gathered to celebrate loved ones who have passed and share in their grief during a special holiday service hosted Sunday by the Oneonta chapter of The Compassionate Friends.

“This is an opportunity to recognize, remember and celebrate the lives of the children we’ve lost,” said Alan Davino, who helps lead the Oneonta chapter meetings with his wife, Kathryn.

The Compassionate Friends offers a place to speak openly about loved ones who have passed and the grief and emptiness left in their absence, according to Davino. 

The service, believed to be part of the largest mass candle-lighting on the globe, was part of the Worldwide Candle Lighting, a global network of ceremonies held on the second Sunday of December every year as an opportunity for grieving families to remember their departed children. Thousands of ceremonies begin with the lighting of a single candle at exactly 7 p.m. in each time zone, creating a virtual 24-hour ring of light.

Board members opened the service with the lighting of five candles in honor of the grief, courage, memories, love and hope of all who have lost loved ones.

“Let them remind you not only of what you lost, but also of what you have,” said chapter leader Diana Friedell.

Chapter members shared intimate details and memories of their departed loved ones, describing their own actions and methods of coping in the wake of their passing.

Otego resident Michael Haehnel discussed the intensity of his grief after the passing of his 14-year-old daughter, Maren.

“It’s something like someone who has never known something more than a mild sunburn on their nose telling us how to put up with the pain of third-degree burns over a significant portion of our bodies,” Haehnel said. “The intense grief over the loss of a child is its own agony that does not yield to simplistic answers like ‘it was God’s will’ or ‘it was all part of a larger plan.’”

Board secretary Ashley Cutting lit a candle in memory of her daughter, Aria, who died after her premature birth, and read “For That I am Thankful,” a poem about grief by Darcie Sims.

“Every grief has its own timetable, which only the griever knows,” said Kathryn Davino.

The Davinos became involved with Compassionate Friends soon after the death of their 19-year-old daughter, Cassie, in 2008. They have been leading the Oneonta chapter meetings, held every third Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Dauley Room of the First United Methodist Church, for the past six years.

“Everyone can master a grief but he that has it,” Kathryn said, quoting William Shakespeare.

Oneonta residents John and Gayle Heller comforted each other during the service, which they said was their first since their son, John, a former firefighter, died while saving his fiancee, Amber Roe, and their four nephews from a fire in their Oneonta home last December.

“It’s been a struggle for us,” John said. “We’re a very close family.”

Recognizing that the holidays can be among the most difficult times to deal with the loss of a loved one, even years after the fact, Delhi resident Joann Kudrewicz shared the poetry and artwork of her friend, Laura Wright, who is trying to market her work to Hallmark and other card manufacturers to provide selections for people who have lost loved ones.

“Nothing in the store speaks to what we’re experiencing,” Kudrewicz said. “This is for people who are at a loss for words.”

Kudrewicz said she was moved to help create the line of cards when shopping for a Father’s Day card for her husband, Michael, the first year after the death of their only child, Nina.

“We wanted to acknowledge the day,” she said. “It’s something to say ‘you’re still a father’ or ‘you’re still a mother.’”

The group again commissioned local artist David Geer to design an original ornament — this year a hand-painted dove — for each family to personalize with their child’s name, to be displayed on a “memory tree.”

“May love be what you remember most,” Friedell said in closing of the service.

“We hope you have a peaceful, soft and gentle holiday this year,” Alan added.

For more information about The Compassionate Friends, visit tcfoneonta.org.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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