The gentle tones of an electric piano provided a mournful backdrop for the sad silence filling the auditorium at the Passavant Hospital Foundation Conference Center in McCandless.
As a spring night outside effortlessly embraced nature's renewal, those inside hoped for a similar transformation. All had suffered personal winters of despair, watching helplessly as a loved one fell victim to the allure of drugs.
A baby cried. Adults cried, too, as more than 40 people walked in single file to the front. Each lit a candle while speaking of the suffering of sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, lovers and ex-spouses, relatives and friends -- some now clean, some still struggling, some departed. Handed white roses, they carried their candles back to their seats.
The soft candlelight illuminated the inherent sorrow of the seventh annual Vigil of Hope sponsored by the foundation's Bridge to Hope Family Support Group. Yet the flames also illuminated the power of speaking aloud about unspeakable loss so that others might avoid it.
With use of heroin and other opiates at epidemic proportions in the region, those at the ceremony, and others like them, are increasingly exposing their pain to tear away the false belief that drug use is due to a lack of character. They are doing so in hopes society will accurately acknowledge and comprehensively address addiction as a disease from which no one is immune, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, education, upbringing, race or residency.
Overdose deaths are "what can happen when society finds it easier to deny, to blame and to seek to punish rather than try to understand and treat this prevalent and devastating disease," said Joan Ward, one of the vigil's organizers, in opening remarks to the audience of more than 80 people.
Sheila Broman of Moon agreed. She lit a candle for her son, Andrew, 26, who died of a heroin overdose in April 2008 "and for all the others who have passed away due to addiction." She is involved in Beyond the Bridge to Hope, a new monthly bereavement support group.
"There are so many Andrews out there," she said later. "There are so many hurting and grieving. If I could help anyone in any way, I would be happy to do so."
Still in pain, those who have lost children to addiction say they have to do something -- anything -- to try to prevent this from happening to another parent. They said they need to create something positive from their pain in order to survive something so terrible.
Barb and Duane DiPietro moved from a Pittsburgh suburb to Manor in Westmoreland County when their two sons were young because they feared the encroachment of drugs on their lives.
But they learned there is no drug-free zone -- their son Justin, 25, died of a heroin overdose in November 2010 after using various drugs for nearly eight years. Another son also has struggled with drug problems.
"We were in that mind-set it can't happen here, we raised them properly," Duane said.
Today, they'll tell their cautionary tale to anyone who will listen.
"You have this burning desire inside of you [to speak out because] this is the worst thing in the world that has happened to you and you don't want anyone else to experience it," Barb said. "It's the worst disease, the worst life, the worst death."
The couple is involved with the Pennsylvania Addiction Project, a group that advocates for public awareness to eliminate the stigma associated with drug use and to facilitate recovery efforts of addicts and their families. They also monitor legal proceedings for suspected heroin dealers, lobby for tougher penalties for drug sales and use their experience to speak about drug addiction any time they can.
Privately, they suffer their loss in silence but for the tears. A white cross with "Justin" in black letters is centered between two Princeton gold maple trees in their backyard.
Each month on the 13th -- the day Justin died -- they light candles inside the house and a tiki torch near the cross.
Barb regularly seeks solitude on the back porch in "Justin's Corner," a section set off by a large piece of wood finished and framed by Duane as a memorial. On it are pictures of their son and messages they've written, such as "Justin, I died when you died. Love and miss you, Dad."
On what would have been Justin's 27th birthday on July 18, they forced down bites of his favorite cake -- chocolate with chocolate icing -- and released a helium balloon with handwritten messages such as "Hope this makes its way to you in heaven. ... Love and miss you, Mom. Always 25."
The DiPietros and other advocates hope that by showing drug addiction's omnipresence they can remove the stigma blocking public understanding.
"It has to become a disease that has a little more dignity. No one's ashamed when somebody dies from cancer but they're ashamed of a son if he dies of addiction because it carries with it things that are not very nice, like theft, sometimes prostitution and sometimes selling drugs. But that is the evilness of the drug, which is so powerful," Barb said.
Shortly after Justin's death, the couple learned from a newspaper article that another young person, Megan Simko, 24, of Murrysville, had died two days after their son from the same batch of extremely potent heroin that killed him. Barb sent Megan's mother, Beth, a sympathy card to let her know she was not alone in her grief. Beth and the couple have become friends, sharing a bond no one wants to share.
"When you're with somebody who lost a child there's no phony face you have to put on. ... You can cry and scream and say you wish you were dead and you're not judged because that person knows how you feel," said Barb, who with her husband, is receiving grief counseling.
Beth, who likewise is receiving counseling, said that "for a long time, I didn't do anything." But at the DiPietros' invitation she got involved in the Pennsylvania Addiction Project.
"I want it to get out there that it's in every high school everywhere. I want to do it in honor of my daughter."
Beyond distraught, Carmen Capozzi of Irwin lay on the floor, curled in a fetal position, for two days after his son, Sage, 20, died of a heroin overdose on March 5.
And then, Carmen said, he heard Sage's voice.
"I heard Sage tell me, 'Dad, get up. You have to help them, they're not bad kids,'" Carmen said. "I told Sage's friend, 'I've got to do something. I can't stop drugs from coming in here. What am I going to do? I have to tell people. I need an army.' "
And thus was born "Sage's Army," an awareness campaign to spread the word that drugs don't discriminate, that anyone is vulnerable to their enticement. Saving others would be Sage's legacy, Carmen decided.
Since then, more than 3,400 people have joined Sage's Army on Facebook. There, Sage's Army T-shirts are available for sale with proceeds going to the Saint Vincent College Prevention Project. And Sage's Army has sponsored marches in Irwin and Greensburg to draw attention to the epidemic. The DiPietros and Beth were among the marchers.
"We need to promote awareness because my son was a good kid," Carmen said. "I'm not going to let people think my kid was a bad person because he did heroin, which is such a taboo word.
"That's the problem, all of us hide. I was embarrassed, we were embarrassed," he said. "But it's already happening, people aren't going to be able to hide. Parents, grandparents, all of them need to face this problem.
"People should understand it's not just in the city, it's here right now in suburbia. People who don't have this issue now will -- it will be a family member, a friend's son, a friend's daughter. Through this I found out that everyone knows someone who has a problem."
When Austin Adam Sauer, 25, relapsed and died of a heroin overdose in 2007, his mother, Kathryn Socash, of Richland and sister, Lauren Kornick of Hampton, were overwhelmed by grief.
"We had so much love for Austin. What do you do with that love?" Kathryn said. "We needed to do something."
They established the Austin A. Sauer Memorial Foundation, which helps fund addicts' rent at the Lion House sober living residence in Washington, Pa. They also cook there one Saturday a month and pay for a gym membership for residents of the home where Austin thrived before his death.
"It truly saved us. It has given us a purpose," Kathryn said of the foundation (meninrecovery.com/foundation.htm). "I tell these boys at the house that this fills a big part of the void in our hearts. I will always have that hole in my heart but I feel Austin is in that house, is in them.
"They are just wonderful, wonderful people who just have a disease which is one of the most difficult things to turn around. We were always helping Austin but can't help him anymore, but we can help others who suffer as he did."
Even with the salve the foundation provides her, Kathryn needed to attend the Vigil of Hope at Passavant, standing in line with her candle, listening to others speak truth to the pain she likewise felt.
"I light this candle for my daughter who died three months ago," said one.
"I light this candle for my son and three of his friends who died," said another.
"I light this candle for my fiance's brother who died several weeks ago," said yet another.
And then, it was Kathryn's turn.
"My candle is for my beautiful son. ... May he rest in peace."
• Michael A. Fuoco, 61, earned a bachelor's degree in English from John Carroll University, a master's degree in journalism from Penn State University and is a fellow of the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland. Since joining the Post-Gazette in 1984, he has written spot news, investigative pieces, enterprise stories and features. For more than a decade, he covered Pittsburgh police.
• Rebecca Droke, 28, grew up in Arlington, Va., and graduated from Ohio University in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in visual communication. She spent a year working at The Durango Herald in Durango, Colo., before joining the staff of the Post-Gazette in 2006.
Previously, the journalists collaborated on two award-winning series about military service members returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars -- one about traumatic brain injury and the other about post-traumatic stress disorder.
Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1968. First Published August 12, 2012 4:00 AM