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How do you put into words watching your mother the moment she was told her oldest child, and only son, had been murdered…? “I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her. The sound of my mother, crumpled on the kitchen floor, clutching the telephone to her chest and sobbing over and over “I don’t know how to handle this”, is something that breaks my heart to this very day; the heavy sickening feeling never diminishing despite the passing of years.” (I love you, mama. You’re the strongest woman I know.) Bern Miller. October 26, 1976 – October 26, 1997. #love #family #gratefuldead #oregon #rogueriver #memoir #fromthesoultothelips #brother #death #murder #bellingham #seattle #pnw
For 22 years, a monster has lived in my head.
At 16 years old, the fear was so intense that I spent a year sleeping on the floor at the foot of my parents’ bed. I suffered from debilitating nightmares from 1997 until 2014. No amount of medication, no number of psychiatrist visits could combat them.
The monster in my head was the grown image of a boy from my childhood; a boy who grew up to be the man who altered and shaped my life more than any man ever would.
He is the man who murdered my brother.
The story of the monster became my story. It was the story that rose within when someone asked me how many siblings I had. It’s the story that rose up when someone asked how I could be afraid of guns when I was raised within a family of ranchers and state troopers. It’s the story that seems to suffocate me when I visit my hometown.
And it’s the story of why I volunteer inside prisons.
My volunteer work in prisons began by sharing that story—my story—to inmates, and has now evolved into a fiery passion for restorative justice that claws at my insides.
Restorative justice, in part, includes facilitated victim/offender dialogues (VOD). It’s exactly like what it sounds like: a victim and an offender sit down together and talk in a controlled setting with a mediator present.
When I first began volunteering inside, after hearing the story of my brother’s murder, an inmate asked me if I had ever considered having a VOD with the man who had killed him. I never had. It hadn’t even entered my mind until that moment. For me, he was still a scary monster who haunted my dreams and lurked in the corners of my mind each and every day of my life.
But working with inmates and delving deeper into the profound concept of restorative justice had begun to shift my perspective in every aspect of my life—including my perception of the offender in my life story.
For nearly three years, I silently nursed the idea.
I dug around in my brain first to find out if I could even contemplate such a fearful prospect. Society loudly tells us that we simply cannot fathom the idea of forgiving a crime such as murder.
I checked in with my heart and disregarded all of society’s shoulds and should nots. I drew from my first-hand experience working with inmates (a lot of whom fell for murder), and I listened to what I felt was right for me.
I discovered that a face-to-face dialogue was exactly what I wanted and needed to do. Initially, it was with the intent of seeing if this person really was the monster my mind told me he was. And then it became about forgiveness.
After about a year of meditating, I became flooded with a need to look into his eyes and say the words, “I forgive you.”
Because I do forgive him. But it wasn’t just my need for peace that was driving me; it was also the need to offer him peace in return. I deeply desired to offer him the proverbial olive branch that would hopefully allow him the permission to forgive himself.
After working closely with victim services for more than three months in regard to having a VOD with him, I found myself walking through the metal detector at the prison in my home state and being handed a visitor badge, which I clipped to my jacket with trembling and sweaty hands.
I am now so accustomed to being inside prisons and sitting in small rooms with inmates, that other than trembling hands, the magnitude of what I was about to do hadn’t fully sunk in.
And then I walked into the smallest, most claustrophobic conference room I thought I had ever laid eyes upon (in hindsight, the room was actually quite large). He wasn’t in there yet, but the idea of being in that room with him with no guards and only the two women from victim services full-on hit me in the face.
I found myself crying before I even realized what my body was doing. I gasped for breath like I had just run a marathon in under 10 minutes. I think it’s the closest I’ve ever come to having a panic attack. And then the craziest thought went through my head. I found myself concerned for how he was feeling at that moment, sitting in a chair down the hall and around the corner, out of sight while I got checked in through security.
If I was this scared, how scared was he? He more than likely assumed I was there to scream at him for taking my brother away from me. But I wasn’t. Not at all. So, I sat down at the table (shaking so badly that my teeth were literally chattering) and waited while they went to get him.
That first moment of seeing him…it was surreal. It’s something that I don’t fully remember, yet will also never forget. I legally cannot tell you the details of our conversation, but I will tell you this—we laughed. A lot.
My one condition for our conversation was that we didn’t talk about the crime. I know enough details about the day my brother’s life ended, and I had no desire to hear them again. My reasoning behind wanting to see him wasn’t to ask “why,” because the why of it no longer matters all these years later.
Instead, we talked of our childhood. We reminisced about the good ol’ days when we swam in the creek in the summer, and went sledding on trash can lids in the winter, and spent spring breaks partying at a campground in the mountains with our entire high school.
We talked of the past so we could step forward to the future. Two lives were lost on that day back in 1997. My brother’s can never be salvaged, but the other one can.
I didn’t tell many people that I was going to see him, because I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone’s opinion of if it was right or wrong. I wasn’t doing this for anyone other than me and him. Of course, my hope is that the small community in which we were raised will benefit as well.
After my visit with him, I did tell a few people, and I’ve been surprised by the varying responses. Those I thought would be upset told me they were proud of me. Others told me they couldn’t understand it but supported me no matter what. Some, still, were angry. The spectrum has been dizzying; everything from “you’re the bravest person I know” and “your brother would be proud,” to “all inmates are terrible people whose life goal is to manipulate others” and the all-encompassing “you shouldn’t volunteer with those people.” I’ve heard it all since I began volunteering inside, and even more since the VOD with the man who killed my brother.
But here’s the most pertinent piece of this story: what matters most is that I did what I felt was right. Others can choose a path of complete understanding, a path of supporting without understanding, or a path of utter disbelief that I offered another human being forgiveness. There is no handbook on how to deal with murder, but the two families affected most by my brother’s murder have chosen the path of forgiveness.
It’s wildly challenging to move on from things that hurt us so severely in the past, but it’s vital. It may take a while to reach a place of feeling ready, but I deeply believe that forgiveness is the road map to ultimate freedom.