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Mom shares her grief over losing her son to opioids

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — They had tacos for dinner, one of her son’s favorite dishes, on a night when everything seemed OK, would be OK, when all arguments and worries and admonishments were shelved and only good memories and better promises were topics of conversation.

“Before he left that evening he told me of a vacation he booked in Red River for him and his girlfriend,” Bernadette Miller wrote. “He gave me a hug and kissed me on the forehead.”

I love you, Momma, he told her. I’ll talk to you in a couple of days.

In a couple of days, an Albuquerque police sergeant arrived on her doorstep and broke the news. Chuckie, her 21-year-old son, was dead. Days before, he had purchased counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl.

Bernadette Miller says she and her son, Chuckie, shared a close bond. “Sometimes he would tell his friends he couldn’t hang out because he had plans with his mom,” she wrote. (Courtesy of Bernadette Miller)

The sergeant’s words were not real to her. That night was not real. That body in his bed, covered hastily by a white sheet because her husband refused to let her see her only child that way, was not real.

But that foot.

She spotted it sticking out from under the sheet.

“I needed to touch my son, my Little Bear, my Chuckie,” she wrote. “I remember touching his foot and it was so cold, so very cold.”

That’s when she knew it was all real.

She wrote about Chuckie – her boy, her blessing and her best friend. She wrote about how his death March 11, 2017, shattered everything, shattered her.

Her words became a seven-page victim impact statement that she had intended to read last week at the sentencing of the man who prosecutors say had supplied the lethal pills.

But neither Jeremy Brown, 26, nor co-defendant Crystal Campos, 33, were charged with manslaughter or murder. Brown, whose case went first, pleaded guilty to a federal firearms violation in exchange for the dropping of the drug charges. Last Tuesday, he was sentenced to five years in prison.

Because the drug charges were dismissed, Miller was not allowed to give her impact statement.

So she came to me.

It was important, she said, that her words be heard, her grief be acknowledged, her warning be heeded. It was important that Chuckie not be remembered as a stereotype but as a person who struggled, who grew up happy in a good home – his mother a devoted parent and counselor, his father a police officer – but who succumbed anyway to an opioid addiction that last year killed more than 70,000 Americans, a record.

He was funny, his mother said. Smart, generous, an unabashed mama’s boy.

“Chuckie was a born helper and a healer,” Miller wrote. “He was also an athlete that enjoyed playing soccer, baseball and then football throughout his lifetime. After graduating from (La Cueva) high school in 2014 with a 3.0 GPA, he enlisted in the Army pursuing a career in nursing.”

It was at La Cueva, she said, that an older classmate introduced him to cocaine, telling him it would help him lose weight and play better football.

She sent Chuckie to a psychologist, which seemed to do him good, she said. He was clean for the next two years. He enlisted in the Army but was discharged because of foot issues.

After that, he worked at a medical equipment company, rented a house, had a girlfriend his mother hoped he would marry and give her grandchildren.

In 2016, he asked to move back home so he could pay off bills. Months later, his addiction resurfaced, this time it was oxycodone.

They sent him to inpatient rehab in Rio Rancho, but he was released too soon, Miller believes.

He returned home in February 2017, and so did his addiction.

“I told him there’s no drugs in this house, that he needed to find someplace else to live if he wasn’t going to stop,” she said. “I can sit here and tell you all the regrets I have about that day, but it is not going to bring my son back.”

He moved in with a friend. Weeks later, he was dead.

According to federal court documents, Chuckie had contacted Campos on March 9, 2017, and asked her to get him some pills. Campos contacted Brown, who supplied her with pills known as “dark blues” for $25 apiece.

Miller found the pills in a baggie weeks later, hidden among her son’s belongings.

She said prosecutors told her that neither defendant could be charged in Chuckie’s death, because it was not certain whether the pills killed him. His death certificate states that he died of cocaine, oxycodone, oxymorphone and fentanyl poisoning.

Miller knows it was the pills.

“The thought of other families losing their loved ones in a similar way we lost my son is terrifying and traumatic for me,” she would have told the court had she gotten the chance.

She would have told the court how her husband suffered a heart attack brought on by grief and how she now takes seven prescription medications to keep anxiety and despair from swallowing her whole.

“Most days I can barely function,” she wrote. “I feel so raw and empty.”

She has learned to compartmentalize her life, put on a brave face. But it is all not real.

Campos’ case is still pending. If she is convicted and sentenced on drug-related charges, Miller is ready.

She has already written her victim impact statement.


Victim Impact Statement (Chuck’s Mother)

Today marks 20 months and 16 days since the passing of my only child Chuck. That is roughly 15,000 hours.

March 11, 2017, is the day my heart shattered and time stood still. I relive that day over and over. March 11, 2017, is the day a sergeant appeared at my front door and told me my only child had passed away. March 11, 2017, is the day when we prayed over my son’s body, a silhouette under a single white sheet. I could see his foot sticking out from the bottom of the sheet. I needed to touch my son, my Little Bear, my Chuckie. I remember touching his foot and it was so cold, so very cold. That’s when I knew it was true. My only child, my son, my little buddy, my social, emotional companion was gone forever.

I believe Chuck would have had a career. He would have been married to his longtime girlfriend and given me grandchildren. We had this conversation a couple of months before his passing. I asked him if he would be married and have children his response was, “I would, and I would want one son to go fishing with and one daughter for you to spoil mom!”

My future, my husband’s future, our future has forever been altered by his death.

Two days before his passing, we ate dinner together in our home. We had tacos, one of his favorite meals. Before he left that evening he told me of a vacation he booked in Red River for him and his girlfriend. He gave me a hug and kissed me on the forehead. Those are the kisses I miss the most. He said, “I love you, Momma. I’ll talk to you in a couple days.” He had plans to live life.

My son Chuck was a charismatic, caring, and an empathetic individual with a smile and laugh that could clear any negative space he held. From early adolescence, he could engage in conversation with any adult and generate a giggle. He was truly a blessing for me and my husband. Our lives have forever been altered by the loss of Chuckie. Our identities were entwined with parenthood and family life. The natural order of our lives has been broken and changed for the rest of our lives. The genogram ends.

My husband and I were only married for three years, my mom would call me, and my dad would always ask when I was going to give him a grandson. The month following the death of my dad, I found out I was pregnant with Chuckie. On October 11,1995, my son was born.

As he grew up, he was such an outgoing and fun-loving kid. From the time he was 5 years old and for several years after, his favorite movie was “Cinderella,” the story of unjust oppression and triumphant reward. Chuckie’s loving, caring and generous nature lead to him selflessly help others that needed mental, physical and or emotional support. Throughout his short life, he would actively seek others to save them, similar to the prince in the Disney movie “Cinderella.”

Since his passing, many of his friends and acquaintances have shared their stories of how Chuck was there in their time of need and because of him they LIVED and continue to strive for a better life for themselves in his memory. Chuck was a born helper and a healer.

He was also an athlete that enjoyed playing soccer, baseball and then football throughout his lifetime. After graduating from high school in 2014 with a 3.0 GPA, he enlisted in the Army pursuing a career in nursing. His goal-driven attitude and attentiveness to the outside world in both physiological and psychological communication methods attracted others to him, both male and female. He was acutely aware of body language and other nonverbal cues. He could easily identify different perspectives from a young age. I was so proud of him and all his accomplishments. Chuck was autonomous and a reflection of my parenting skills which boosted my self-esteem as a mother.

Chuckie was the reason I woke up in the morning. His presence gave so much joy to my life and for those who knew him. He made me laugh all the time with his special kind of funny. No one can replace his quick witty sense of humor.

Chuckie was also a mama’s boy, and numerous people knew that. My son was not ashamed of that label. In fact, he regarded himself as such. The relationship we had was close, the closest bond a mother and child could have. Sometimes he would tell his friends he couldn’t hang out because he had plans with his mom. We played video games together, watched movies, went bowling and sometimes out to dinner, just the two of us. This is how special our bond was. He showed me unconditional love.

When my husband would work late night or graveyard shifts, Chuckie would stay with me and provide physical safety and emotional support for me. My emotional needs were always met with Chuck. We would talk about anything from constellations throughout the universe, spirituality, diversity in cultures, psychology, philosophy, prayer and God. We would go to church together, participate in fun runs together, go hiking and exploring together. We would play video games for hours together, have all-day movie marathons together and laugh until we cried playing board games together.

Holidays were always the best with my son. As a mother, I wanted my child to experience imagination and forget the realities of this world. Whatever holiday it was, I tried to make it something big with our family. When Chuckie started losing his teeth I began the process of being the Tooth Fairy, but not just a regular Tooth Fairy. I was a very special Tooth Fairy that would write him little notes on 2 x 3 paper and homemade envelopes.

Every year for Christmas I would throw his dad’s work boots in the coals in the fireplace and leave marks on the carpet that I would happily clean up later. In the eighth grade, someone told him Santa wasn’t real and he told them, “It’s all what you believe.” I continued to always put gifts from Santa because it was our tradition and he loved it, I loved it!

Even at the age of 20, he still had an Easter basket but I would make it more mature adding video games and snacks like Slim Jims. These traditions have been taken away from me.

Unfortunately, our family traditions cannot continue, our lives are forever changed. My emotional state since my sons passing does not allow me physically to do the same things I used to do. This year, I was unable to celebrate Halloween. I turned off all the lights and locked myself in the bedroom and watched television. When my son was here we would carve pumpkins, and put decorations high and low. Those decorations are now locked in the attic and I never want to use them again. I don’t know what to do with them because I can’t even look at them without the torment of my loss, that cause a physiological freeze with rumination.

Every year I would make pumpkin pie from the carved pumpkins because that was Chuckie’s favorite. I am unable do that tradition either.

I don’t even cook or bake for myself anymore. I have my own life sentence I am living. From the loss of my only child and the anguish surrounding his death and this legal case, has severely impacted my health, which is quickly deteriorating. I have recently been diagnosed by medical professionals with a stress-induced autoimmune disease. My husband has also suffered a massive heart attack eight months after our son’s death. The cardiologist indicated our son’s death was a contributing factor. The emotional roller coaster is never ending.

Thanksgiving was difficult, as I look to see an empty seat. I am trying to be brave. No matter how long it has been or will be — one year, five years, 10 years, 20 years — I will always have a hole in my life where my son is missing.

The holidays and family functions only highlight the loss of my only child. Today is just as hard as the day he passed away. Christmas will be an excruciating holiday.

My purpose as a mother has been removed, and I question my self-actualization. I feel as though my life is gone. I deal with guilt, fear, shame and anger on a daily basis.

The ripple effect from this crime has altered the lives of not only me but my husband, my mother, father, sister, my brother-in-law, my two young nephews and numerous other family members and friends. My marriage has suffered because my husband and I process grief very differently. My health has suffered because I have complicated bereavement with severe anxiety and depression that has been building up to the point that it is now manifesting itself physiologically.

My husband also had to change his work schedule, since Chuckie is not here with me to accommodate my safety and emotional need. This change in my husband’s work schedule has led to a deterioration in earnings by half of what he was previously paid because he no longer has the night shift differential and overtime is no longer an option for him.

Purchasing burial plots together that weren’t pre-planned added additional emotional and financial stressors. I had to purchase the plots next to my son! I had to. I was unaware the expense of plots and my son’s headstone. I never knew how much of an expense the death of my child would be.

I have lost hours and wages of my own due to multiple medical provider appointments including mental health counseling, psychologist appointments, chiropractic services, acupuncture, primary care provider visits, dental appointments from stress grinding, with multiple root canals and plastic night guards I have to wear, court dates and a recent hospital visit for chest pain. I was on one prescribed medication before my son’s death. Now I am on seven prescriptions.

My social life has also ceased to exist as I don’t feel safe and cannot trust anyone anymore. Isolation is all I know. My friends with their children have their lives. Not one person would want to sit in a room with me in my misery. What bonded us together was our kids growing up together or being in school together. The fact is, I don’t have Chuck anymore, and that social emotional support group is extinct.

My extended family relationships have also suffered because I cannot physically attend traditional family functions like graduations, birthday parties, family holidays, weddings or baby showers. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are the worst because of the constant reminder of the hole that is missing in our family life.

My relationship with my sister and nephews is affected because every time I am around my nephews, I think of Chuckie as a child and the trusting, innocent, unconditional love my only son shared with me. I have lost power and control over my own life. I no longer enjoy activities I used to enjoy, and I have a discouragement in humanity.

Most days I can barely function. I feel so raw and empty. My identity was always a Mom before anything else. Now I am grief, a void of isolated emptiness, and untrusting of humanity. I put on a mask to appear professional and courageous, I pretend to show strength, courage and resilience. The truth is, I am falling apart inside.

When I’m all put together, with eye lashes, makeup, hair curled and dressed in business casual with flare, it’s one of my worst days emotionally. At work, I can compartmentalize and the day flies by. When I’m not at work, I stay in my bedroom and the unstoppable ruminations of every aspect of my life and memories turn into pure anguish. I jump on what I call my trauma train where one train car attaches to another and I’m no longer the conductor. I have such limited control over my own life. I can’t breathe. My heart feels like an open hole.

I have tried to keep it together for so long, but I constantly hold my breath in pain wondering when I will be functional and have predictability in my life again. I am alone in my isolated dark hole of broken hearted emptiness.

My son and best friend is gone and I miss him beyond words. I only have pictures now, frozen pieces of time to remind me of how it was when my Chuckie Bear was here and with us.

My life now consists of grief, waves of emotions that are totally unpredictable. With my grief, I am able to compartmentalize. However, there are days where I wake up with an emptiness. I cry in isolation and I do not want to be bothered, but at the same time I don’t want to be alone. My heart is broken EVERY morning when I open my eyes, and my chest hurts from the pain. I have not had a day where I can make my own decisions on what my day will be physiologically. However, my psychological state from losing my only child will always determine what will be accomplished. This is the most frustrating part of my life at this time.

The defendant is a direct link to my only child’s death, and consequences for his reckless and careless behavior that ended my only child’s life and caused irreparable harm to our family’s life needs to be swift and just. I ask this court to consider the magnitude and impact of this crime on our lives, and what the impact continues to do in our lives on a daily and yearly basis.

It is time for our justice system to do what it is intended to do — to keep the public safe and to keep the defendant away from our community. The thought of other families losing their loved ones in a similar way we lost my son is terrifying and traumatic for me.

I understand the court will determine the defendants sentence and further recommendations. Considering the death of my only child and the harm the defendants crimes have caused, I ask that the court sentence the defendant to the maximum sentence applicable under the law. Any time less than the maximum would be egregious, compared to the life sentence my family and I have been given.

Bernadette Miller

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.

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