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John Jones died in a cave, but his widow emerged from the darkness

Readers continue to be interested in our 2014 profile of John Jones' widow. We re-promote her story today.

SALT LAKE CITY — It's been a long five years since John Jones got stuck and died in Utah's Nutty Putty Cave, which was then sealed up and became his final resting place.

It was a startling tragedy for a family, a community of rescuers, and a state that followed the failed rescue effort, only to learn of the fatal outcome that came one day before Thanksgiving in 2009.

His wife, Emily Jones-Sanchez, would return to Virginia a widow and recalls that first year and the first anniversary of his death.

“It was such a devastating Thanksgiving, because everyone told me: ‘You don’t have to figure everything out, give yourself a year,’ and it was the next year and I had nothing figured out,” she said.

Today she points to a song to recall the anguish and what it took to overcome her husband's death, the subsequent birth of their child, wading through difficult changes and single parenthood, and then to remarry and give birth to a third child.

“All I ever wanted, all I ever dreamed of, everything I hoped and everything I prayed for, couldn't hold a candle to what I've been given; I've been given what I need,” she said, paraphrasing from Michael McLean’s "The Forgotten Carols."

"I just thought of that song and that idea over and over through the last five years," she said.

“When I think of the hard things that I’ve been through and the challenges I will go through, I just keep remembering that lesson — that Heavenly Father has a plan for our lives and that even when we think we know what’s best for us, Heavenly Father knows better.”

Considering what the past five years would bring, it is a stunning response.

A November trip brought Emily, her husband John, and their 13-month old daughter, Lizzie, home for a visit to Utah from Virginia, where John was attending medical school. They were coming to announce that they were expecting their second child.

But a pre-Thanksgiving outing to the cave left John, 26, trapped. He died after spending 27 hours in a small opening in the cave, unable to be extricated by rescuers. His remains are entombed there still.

Emily, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said it was her faith that sustained her.

“Definitely for the first few months I just felt really buoyed up, I felt OK,” she said. “I was obviously devastated and I missed John and it was rough, but I felt full of faith. I felt like Heavenly Father is going to take care of us and it’s going to be OK.”

She said she had several experiences that left her certain that John continued to exist, despite his death.

“I hadn’t always had an amazing testimony,” she said. “I’d had my fair share of doubts and struggles, but after my experiences after John’s death, I knew death wasn’t the end. I knew John was still out there. I thought: ‘OK. He has work to do and I need to figure out what I’m going to do.”

What now?

That proved to be among the most difficult things she would face. She returned with Lizzie to their family apartment at John’s school in Virginia, but because it was student-family housing and there was no longer a student living there, they had to move.

It had been difficult to remain there anyway with John gone and looking toward a summer birth, so she and Lizzie moved in with her parents until John Edward Jones II was born in June. She moved into her own place but continued to struggle with what to do next.

“The part that got me down was the feeling that my whole life, all my plans had been totally obliterated,” she said. “I planned on helping John get through medical school, raising our family together and being a mom.”

When she attended BYU, she had been studying psychology and worked hard to build up her resume and earn good grades to someday go to graduate school and become a marriage and family therapist. She said that was the last thing she was interested in after John died.

She started a photography business and went back to school part time, taking classes in graphic design, but continued to feel confused about the future and stressed about her unexpected role as sole provider for her family.

“That was such a burden,” she said. “I felt constantly a weight of: ‘How do I take care of my family and what am I supposed to be doing with my life?’ That was by far the most depressing part. It’s hard to be alone, it’s so hard to be lonely, and it’s hard to be a single parent, and it’s hard to be just sort of lost.”

A source of light

She noticed that she was happier and stronger, more certain that God had a plan for her life, the more she prayed and read her scriptures. She spent time with those she loved and also started to paint, finding that expressing herself through photography and painting was like therapy.

What she calls her greatest blessing, though, was the one she hesitated to accept. After John’s death, she resolved to never remarry.

But when her son John was around 1 year old, she started to notice that he would latch on to any man who spent time with him.

“I was really surprised, but it broke my heart,” she said. “He just really needed a dad. That was really hard, but I still wasn’t ready to date or admit that maybe I would be ready to get married some day.”

Her younger brother was in school at BYU and kept telling her he had found the perfect guy for her — his roommate, Donovan Sanchez. The two started talking on the phone and, when Donovan had a conference in New York City, part of a model United Nations class, she decided to go meet him.

“I had some neat experiences where I had a change of heart,” she said. “Before I thought, ‘I have to be loyal to John. I have to stick it out,’ and then I started to realize that allowing myself to love again didn’t mean loving John any less. Now, more than ever, I realize that it’s really the opposite is true. I feel like I can love John more, and better, because of my relationship with Donovan. I think my capacity to love has increased.”

New beginning

They decided to marry, and Donovan called both Emily’s father and John’s father to ask their permission. When they married in August 2012, her father, an LDS bishop, performed the ceremony, and John’s father walked her down the aisle.

“I’m sure it was really hard on the Joneses when I got married, but they welcomed Donovan with open arms,” she said. “It meant the world to me. … They’re a really amazing family.”

She remains close with the family, including John’s siblings, who still call and check on her and ensure her family can make it to the annual Jones family reunion.

She said Donovan has been understanding and encouraging. He often talks to Lizzie and John about their dad and was even the one to suggest an eventual return to Utah to be closer to the Joneses.

“He is so supportive of that, of having the kids know their dad and be close to the Jones’,” Emily said. “It’s so great.”

After the wedding, Emily and the kids moved back to Provo, where Donovan had one year before finishing at BYU. Donovan then took a teaching job in Dallas through Teach for America, and the couple welcomed a son, Emerson, last December.

It is where this new family of five make their home.

"He’s such a little joy and Lizzie and John just adore him," she said.

Her happiness and gratitude is tangible. She said she feels blessed to have her children, to have found Donovan, to have learned all that she has learned.

“I think Heavenly Father puts us in families because that’s where we progress, so Heavenly Father gave me that opportunity again, to be in a relationship where I could learn to love better and become, hopefully, a better person,” she said.

“Heavenly Father wanted to bless me with love and support and the opportunity to continue to grow, so I’m so glad that I was humbled enough to be open to that. Donovan has just been a huge blessing.”

Thanksgiving has now become a time when Emily hears from those who think of her and John and reach out. It reminds her of all that she has been given.

“What a perfect thing to go hand in hand with Thanksgiving — to remember all the things I’m grateful for and all the ways Heavenly Father has blessed my life. It is a tremendous blessing.”

At John’s funeral, his LDS stake president mentioned something about his death happening for a reason, Emily said. She said she remembers thinking that she was sure there was something to learn from what happened.

“Now, looking back, I see he was so right,” she said. “I never would want bad things to happen, but in retrospect, we’re given what we need. We’re blessed. Life is still wonderful and beautiful and good, even though bad things happen, because Heavenly Father has a plan for us.”

Email: emorgan@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam