“And just 2 minutes ago, she had no idea that a fight broke out from afar
1 minute later, someone she didn’t know was reaching for a gun inside their car
With an intent to pull a trigger, making her the unintentional victim of another senseless crime”
— From “3, 2, 1,” by Jamie Peeler, of Freeport, who lost a young relative to gun violence
The sudden death of a loved one is surely most traumatic when the loss results from a murder.
At a ceremony for the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims in Hempstead’s Kennedy Park auditorium on Friday, relatives of murder victims shared both their profound grief and their determined pathways to healing.
The evening was hosted by Stephanie Draine. Her teenage son, Andre Graydon, was gunned down in Hempstead on Jan. 1, 2014.
At that time, resources to support Draine and her husband, George Graydon, Jr., were few.
“There wasn’t an office of victim services back then,” said Draine. “There was nothing.”
In 2018, the couple founded Life after Loss Andre, an outreach to families of murder victims. Draine attended funerals to let bereaved relatives know they were not alone, and advocated for governmental help.
In 2020, Draine met Jeanine Diehl at a victim’s funeral. Diehl had recently become the executive director of the Nassau County Office of Crime Victims Advocate, formed in 2019 under former County Executive Laura Curran.
Since then, the two women have teamed up to expand their outreach. Diehl and the staff of the Office of Crime Victim Advocate at 1 West St. in Mineola, and Draine’s Life after Andre office at 40 Main St. in Hempstead, both respond to call after call, steadying the callers to survive the worst of events.
“What today reminds us is that we don’t remember in isolation,” said Diehl at Friday’s ceremony, “that we don't remember in silence, we remember together.”
“Take a deep breath. Know that you’re not alone,” said Draine. “This is our opportunity to honor and celebrate our loved ones, who live on through us.”
Family members of victims came to the podium, one by one, a communal sharing.
Jamie Peeler read “3, 2, 1,” a poem he had written for all victims after his nephew, Lyreek Crawley, was shot by his best friend in 2014.
Carolina Jimenez’s husband Will was killed last year at age 32, leaving behind two small daughters. “My eight-year-old remembers him,” said Jimenez, “but not my two-year-old. She will never know the amazing man he was.”
Peggy Herrera’s son Justin Baerga died on July 4, 2022, one minute before she arrived to help celebrate his 24th birthday. As Mother’s Day 2023 approached, she, too, wrote a poem.
“‘Mom! Mom!’ Oh, how we wish we could hear that again,” wrote Herrera. “We're screaming, but you can't hear us. We're crying, but there's no comfort.”
Several more spoke, including Valerie McFadden, a longtime teacher’s aide at Uniondale High School, who for 23 years has posted photo montages on social media to comfort the families of young victims, some of whom she personally has known.
Officials who attended offered resources for help.
“I want you to know tonight that the county is doing everything that they can to provide support, counseling, grief care, and police presence,” said Anissa Moore, Deputy County Executive for Health and Human Services. “We’re taking this seriously.”
“Just know that the village, myself, are here for you,” said Hempstead Village Trustee Kevin Boone.
“Education is key,” said Assemblywoman Taylor Darling, noting the supportive presence of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots organization dedicated to preventing gun violence. “I’m proud of what we’ve been able to work on in the state legislature since I entered the Assembly in 2019, but it’s not enough.”
Draine and five loved ones of murder victims solemnly lit six large white candles on a table at the front of the auditorium, representing grief, courage, memories, love, hope, and advocacy.
“Today and every day forth, we speak their name,” said Draine.
McFadden concluded the ceremony by reading out more than 200 names, while the auditorium lights dimmed and attendees somberly held small electric candles aloft.
The healing effect of communal grieving was apparent afterward. Even as the families commiserated with each other, laughter returned to their voices, and the joy of remembering their absent loved ones came stealing back.