Gina Gutierrez sorts through items that belonged to her firstborn son Jake, who died 13 years ago from a staph infection. Gutierrez and three others are forming an Eastern Plains chapter of The Compassionate Friends. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)
By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
She keeps his tiny, blue socks in a plastic container on a closet shelf. They are buried in a bag with clothes he wore — a Dalmatian print outfit his grandmother hand-sewed along with a striped baseball jumper and matching hat.
“It still holds the shape of his little foot — his feet were so tiny,” said Gina Gutierrez, his sock in her hand, as a tear — that she tried for an hour to hold back — rolled down her cheek.
Her firstborn son Jake died 13 years ago from a staph infection. He was born with Down’s Syndrome and a heart condition. Doctors predicted he would not survive the first year of his life, she said. He died at 8 months old. Gutierrez was 24.
Gutierrez and her husband divorced a short time later.
“Many marriages don’t survive the death of a child,” Gutierrez said. A photo of her son — Baby Jake, she calls him — sits near a brick fireplace, a candle flickering next to it. Her 6-year-old son Christopher is at football practice.
Her grief is still raw. Many people, she said, can’t understand why.
“People think that after a year, you should get over it. Life goes on for everybody else; and death makes people uncomfortable. It silences a room. The irony is that talking about your child helps you,” Gutierrez said.
It is for this reason Gutierrez and three others are forming an Eastern Plains Chapter of The Compassionate Friends, a national self-help organization for families who have experienced the death of a child.
“People have no clue what it feels like to lose a child. The only ones who can truly understand are people who have gone through the same thing,” said Pamela Nuttall, whose daughter Angela was killed two years ago in a car accident. Nuttall said the other driver was drunk.
A sense of being normal, the women say, comes with talking to others who have lost a child. Telling their stories, even for the four founding members, is not a requisite.
“I don’t know if I will talk (about my son) at the first meeting,” Fort Sumner resident Kathy Bridges said.
“I look at this as a time for me to heal also. I usually cannot talk about him without crying.”
Bridges’ son, Joshua, a 21-year-old entrepreneur, died in a car accident. His father watched Joshua’s truck burn up minutes after colliding with a large rock.
A counselor later explained to the mourning mother the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — but it didn’t help.
The therapy felt “cold and clinical,” she said. Instead, she and her husband buried themselves in their work. For the couple, it was the only comfortable way to deal with their pain.
This summer, Bridges returned for the first time to the lakeside, a once too painful reminder of Joshua, an avid outdoorsman. She and her husband, she said, can finally talk about the son they lost.
Gutierrez hopes for a haven — a place where she, Bridges, Nuttall, and others can shed their tears freely.
“I don’t want anyone to feel like they are alone in their grief,” Gutierrez said, her first born son’s clothes carefully removed from the plastic bin where she stores them. In an semi-circle, memories of him surround her.