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Mourning a Loss : Slow Grieving Takes Different Forms for the Westminster Family of a 13-Year-Old Killed Last Year

March 20, 1994|GEOFF BOUCHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WESTMINSTER — Gail Martinez's hand trembled as her fingertips traced the image of her son's face on the screen. Kneeling in front of the television, she rubbed the back of her hand against the flickering ghost, caressing the electronic echo of his face.

For a few minutes, it was as if her son was alive again, for a few moments she could hear his voice. "I love you," she whispered, leaning forward and kissing the cold glass screen. "I miss you, and I'm so glad you were born. I love you, Jeff."

The videotape is of 13-year-old Jeff Martinez and some of his friends practicing skateboard jumps on a sunny corner in Westminster. The digital read-out in the corner marks the time as August of last year, Friday the 13th, 4:18 p.m.

Just four hours later, riding the same skateboard, Jeff Martinez would have his life ended by a drunk driver several blocks away.

The boy's death sent shock waves through the quiet Westminster neighborhood, as did the subsequent arrest of a local man who was behind the wheel during the hit and run. Hundreds of cards poured in, the city's Traffic Commission put up more stop signs in the area, church and school groups held the tragedy up as a chilling example of the evils of drunk driving.

Nine months later, with the memorial services and court case long over, life goes on for neighbors and for Jeff's classmates, busy with their freshman year of high school.

Certainly many people's thoughts occasionally turn to Jeff. But for most, time has cushioned the pain. Not so in the Martinez household. For this couple and their 7-year-old son, Jonathan, the wounds are still open.

Sitting in the dim room watching a visual sliver of her child's last hours, Jeff's mother could barely find words to describe her loss. "So much," she said as she rummaged through a box of cards and photos from the week of Jeff's memorial. "Just so much to say."

The power and duration of the grieving period following a loved one's death varies by person. For parents such as Gail and Ed Martinez, whose son died so violently, the grief can taint or overwhelm every aspect of their lives, UCLA psychiatry professor Robert Coombs said.

"No human problem produces more difficult pathological problems than the loss of a loved one," said Coombs, who leads the university's Grief and Bereavement Program, counseling mourners from Orange and Los Angeles counties. "And the most acute suffering I have seen is among people who have lost a child."

Parents naturally expect to outlive their children, and they typically visualize their offspring's future from the moment of birth. Those expectations, coupled with the strong bond between parent and child, magnify grief, Coombs said.

The only way to move forward is to explore the feelings, perhaps with one-on-one counseling or maybe in a group setting, Coombs said. Grievers should do what feels right--be it toiling at work to distract themselves or mourning at home. The key is make sure the emotions are released somehow, he said.

"For people like (the Martinezes), they have to make it through a long healing process, not unlike the way you would have to heal from a surgery," Coombs said. "It's a surgery performed without anesthesia. It's like someone went inside them and ripped out their heart and other organs. The healing process is of mind, spirit and body. It will take a long time."

The car that killed Jeff Martinez was going 40 m.p.h., maybe 45, when the driver dipped toward a gutter to avoid a speed bump, police reports show. Jeff, a skateboard lover, was on the edge of the road, beneath a street lamp, when the car slammed into him. He suffered assorted injuries, chief among them a fractured skull.

Back at the Martinez home, a cherry pie was cooling in the kitchen and Gail was standing on the porch, wondering why Jeff and his friend were overdue. She had already dismissed the idea of driving around to find him--the friend was visiting from Oceanside, so she was worried that her increasingly image-conscious son would be embarrassed. When the phone rang, Gail felt an inexplicable sense of dread.

After witnessing the grisly accident, the visiting friend called the Martinez house. Within minutes, police and paramedics were en route, and a frantic Ed was standing over his son's crumpled form.

The driver, Matthew Thomas Wilbur, 23, was arrested within an hour. Jeff's friend gave a description of the car, but police might have pulled Wilbur over without it. When he was arrested, Wilbur was speeding down the Garden Grove Freeway, headlights off, with a shattered windshield from the impact of the teen's body. He had twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system, according to police records.

"This guy had been at a party, we found out, and he had been arrested before for driving drunk, but that didn't stop him. He left my son in the gutter," Ed said. "He hit someone and he knew it, but he didn't do anything but keep going."

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