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Family of Pulse Victim Channels Grief into Anti-Gun Violence Advocacy: ‘That Keeps Us Very, Very Motivated’

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It has been one year since a single gunman opened fire inside the Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando, killing 49 people during a two-hour siege that was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Jerry Wright, 31, who worked in retail at Walt Disney World, was celebrating a friend’s birthday when he was fatally shot. Since his death, his parents, Fred and Maria Wright, have become vocal advocates for tougher gun control laws, joining with several Pulse survivors the nonprofit group Everytown for Gun Safety, which works to curb gun violence.

“I just keep thinking to myself: What would Jerry want me to do? If I can keep another mom from having to wake up every morning and think, ‘I have to face another day without my son,’ I’ll be happy,” Maria tells PEOPLE.

Her husband Fred adds, “That keeps us very, very motivated.”

The Wrights, along with loved ones of other victims and survivors, are in Orlando, where officials have designated the day as “Orlando United Day — A Day of Love and Kindness.” It started at 2:02 Monday morning, the exact time the shooting began a year ago, with a private ceremony at Pulse during which each of the 49 names were read aloud. At noon, churches will ring their bells 49 times – once for each victim. Two more ceremonies, for the public, will be at 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. at Pulse, and additional ceremonies will take place throughout the day across the city.

The Wrights know it will be a difficult day.

“We want to celebrate Jerry’s life but it’s going to be a very sad day for us. There’s going to be a lot of crying,” says Fred.

The year has been very long one for the Wrights. It has been a year filled with firsts.

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“It was the first Father’s Day [without Jerry] a week after he was killed. It was devastating for my husband. We had to go through his first birthday he wasn’t with us. The first Thanksgiving. Our first Christmas,” says Maria, her voice breaking as she recalls those moments.

But Maria says each time she shares her grief, she recognizes that she gets another opportunity to speak about her son. She gets to tell people about the thoughtful way her son used to place a glass of water on her nightstand before she went to bed. Her husband gets to recall how his son would call them every day, twice a day.

“He called in the mornings and evenings. Calling us, asking us what we were doing and how were we doing,” says Fred. “He was one of the most incredible human beings you’ll ever know.”

Still, the tragedy of their son’s death continues to fill them with pain. Maria says it’s “unnatural.” Nothing prepares you for the death of a child, she says, contrasting it to the way she and her children prepared for her mother’s death two months earlier.

“My mother died at 94, a good, long life. My three kids and I were with her on her last night. We read her poetry, we sang her songs and we told her how much we loved her. That’s the way it should be,” she says.

“With Jerry, we couldn’t do that. You’re wondering and worrying – what were those last minutes like. Was he scared? Was he cold? Was he hurt? The one thing that comforts me is thinking that my mom would have been with him throughout that whole thing. She probably came and took him to the light.”

The Wrights will, once again, get to share Jerry’s stories, as well as bond with other victim’s relatives and survivors who will be sharing their stories throughout the day.

“He was so good to everybody. For him to get shot like that, it was so devastating to us. You can be as good as you can be and still lose your life to gun violence,” says Fred. “Our son doesn’t have a voice anymore, but we do.”