The greatest loss: Those who have lost children can identify with Martin family

Joe Gutierrez visited the grave of his oldest daughter, Natasha, at Highland Cemetery on Memorial Day last year. Natasha died in 2005.

Joe Gutierrez visited the grave of his oldest daughter, Natasha, at Highland Cemetery on Memorial Day last year. Natasha died in 2005.
Joe Gutierrez visited the grave of his oldest daughter, Natasha, at Highland Cemetery on Memorial Day last year. Natasha died in 2005.
MEEKER I When Joe Gutierrez heard about the Jan. 19 accident involving three members of the Martin family and the death of 9-year-old Stone Martin, he knew what the boy’s father and mother were going through.
Like other parents in Meeker and Rangely, he’s lived through the death of a child.
“It’s just a total shock to your system,” Gutierrez said. “The first thing is denial. … that I’m gonna wake up, like a bad dream.
“But you don’t.”
While Gutierrez doesn’t know the Martin family well, he knows full well what they must be going through.
“For one, it being a child, that gets me. Then, knowing the family. I didn’t know Stone, but Alahna is in middle school, a sixth-grader,” said Gutierrez, who is the head custodian at Barone Middle School. “Vanessa (the Martin children’s mother) would come and eat lunch with Alahna. They’re just wonderful people. It just gets to you. It triggers a lot of memories.”
Gutierrez and his wife, Donna, lost their oldest child, Natasha, four years ago. She died from injuries she sustained in a one-vehicle accident on Sulphur Creek Road in October 2005, five months after graduating from Meeker High School. She was 18.
“They, the sheriff’s office, called and said that Natasha had been in an accident and that we needed to go up to the hospital,” Joe Gutierrez remembered. “Then they called again and said we needed to get up there. When we got there and I saw the helicopter sitting there, my heart sank. Then they wouldn’t let us see her for the longest time. They were trying to keep her alive … and get her stabilized, and it never happened. She never made it.”
Natasha had gone out with friends that night. She never came home.
“At first, I found myself just beating myself up, asking why,” Gutierrez said. “The thing everybody says is, I shouldn’t have let her go. But you can’t keep ’em in a bubble. What life has in store, you have to go with what happens. Once I stepped back and looked at the big picture, I knew I couldn’t bring her back.”
And, like the Martins, Joe and Donna Gutierrez have another child.
“The big thing is Alexis,” Joe Gutierrez said of Natasha’s younger sister. “She’s my world. I’ve got to give her everything … give her just as good a life as we gave Natasha, if not a better one. She’s probably the strongest out of all of us.”
Alexis was in grade school when her older sister died.
“The kids in her class … she got a lot of support from her friends and, of course, family,” Gutierrez said. “They (Natasha and Alexis) were so close. It’s affected her, but she’s probably dealt with it the best out of the three of us. She knows she’s not coming back.”
Joy and Stan Thayer’s son, Ryan, was killed in a car accident 11 years ago, also on Sulphur Creek Road, like Natasha Gutierrez. Ironically, Ryan had been the ring bearer in Joe and Donna Gutierrez’s wedding.
In another small-town twist, the Thayers were neighbors of Jerry and Denise Martin — Paul Martin’s parents — when they lived in Meeker. Joy Thayer, who works at Pioneers Medical Center in Meeker, saw Paul and Vanessa Martin — Alahna and Stone’s parents — when they were at the hospital on the day of the accident.
“I had no idea what had happened, but you could tell something was going on,” Joy Thayer said. “I know when we went through that, you’re in shock, you’re just numb and trying to take care of the immediate things.”
For a parent who has gone through the death of a child, it’s important to remember you’re not alone, Joe Gutierrez said.
“Everybody deals with death in a different way, but I think talking to people who have been through that type of situation, I think that’s a comfort,” Joe Gutierrez said. “When it all happened (Natasha’s accident), people who had lost children came and talked to me about how they dealt with things. I took to heart everything that everybody told me. I just became my own therapist. That helped me put things in perspective for myself and how I needed to deal with things.”
A local support group called Compassionate Friends has a candlelight service at Christmastime and offers a network of people who have experienced the loss of a child.
When faced with the loss of a child, parents can respond differently.
“I know Donna struggled with different things that weren’t a problem with me,” Joe Gutierrez said. “To be able to talk about it, that’s one of the big things, is to talk, and not let your emotions override, because you’ll definitely make yourself sick. That’s not a good thing for yourself, or the people around you.”
Like other parents who have lost a child, not a day goes by that Joe Gutierrez doesn’t think of his daughter, that he doesn’t miss her.
“There are always the little signs you get,” he said. “Just little things, but you know they are still there. That’s a comfort to me. I might not see her, but I know she’s still with me.”
Then, there is the anniversary of the child’s death, as well as holidays and other special days, which can be painful reminders of the loss of a child.
“Her birthday is always a tough one for me,” Joe Gutierrez said. “It’s about the same time as mine. That’s one day where I usually just get away by myself and take off and go the woods.”
The outdoors have always been a sanctuary for Gutierrez, something he learned from his father. Now, since Natasha’s death, that’s even more true.
“It’s therapy for me, to be able to get away and let all that stuff roll through my mind,” he said.
For Joe Gutierrez, the reality of his daughter’s death sunk in after her funeral.
“At first, you’re in shock, then after the funeral everybody gets back to their normal lives,” he said. “That’s when it gets tough.”
But for Joe and Donna Gutierrez, they had the love of family and friends and the support of a close-knit community, a community that has also reached out to the Martins and other families who have lost a child.
“I couldn’t imagine going through something like this in a big town, where you just have a few friends here and there,” said Joe Gutierrez, who grew up in Meeker. “There are so many people who have helped me. Unfortunately, there are a bunch of us in this town who have lost a child. It doesn’t matter how old they are, it’s still your kid.”
Joy Thayer agreed. She and her husband Stan have lived in Meeker for 32 years.
“When things like this happen, the people of Meeker are absolutely wonderful,” she said. “People you didn’t even know who had lost a child or gone through the same thing come to support you. You couldn’t ask for a better community.”
For people who want to offer encouragement or comfort to a grieving parent, it can be difficult to know what to say or do.
“I think everybody means well, but there are people who don’t know what to say,” Joe Gutierrez said. “I would see them at the store or the post office, and it was almost like you have a disease. They almost run from you. It bothered me at first. Then I realized … they don’t know what to say. So I would ask them how she (Natasha) affected their life, or ask them to share a story about her. So, whether laughing about something she did, or asking how she affected their life, or crying on someone’s shoulder … even though she’s gone, the memory is still there.”
Added Joy Thayer, “People, after something like this happens, they don’t know what to say. People don’t know how you will react, so some of them will avoid you like the plague, or they’ll come up and give you a hug and say nothing. The best thing they can do is say your child’s name. It hurts worse if they don’t. Then it’s like your child never existed.”
For any parent who has lost a child, life must go on, but there will be good days and bad days, Joe Gutierrez said.
“There are some days it just flat out hits you, but to a certain extent, I guess, time is a healer,” he said. “The fact that you wake up every morning and she’s not there … that’s always going to be there.”
Said Joy Thayer, “It never gets better. It gets different. You can’t change what happened. We all think life is going to be happy and everything is going to be good, but it isn’t. Life is tough. It’s hard. In some ways, it makes it more difficult every time a child dies, because you get to revisit it.”
For couples like Stan and Joy Thayer and Joe and Donna Gutierrez, who have lost a child, those memories and reminders, some of them painful, will always be there.
“Things are never the same. It’s a thing that changes everybody’s life forever,” Joy Thayer said. “When that happened (Stone Martin died), from that moment on, their life will never be the same. Their life will be changed forever.”
Joe Gutierrez said, “I have a yellow fleece pullover that (Natasha) used to wear that hangs in my closet. Every morning when I wake up, I squeeze the sleeve of that pullover and kiss it and say I miss her. I have a picture of her with a deer that she killed on one of our last hunting trips, and before I leave the house I tell her see ya later. That’s how I start my day.”
As much as he misses the child he lost, Joe Gutierrez is thankful for the child he still has.
“If you wake up every morning and tell ’em you love ’em and never tell ’em goodbye … that seems too permanent, I think,” Gutierrez said. “That night, before Natasha left, she said see ya later. I honestly believe I will.”