Her experience with recovery and grief drove Windsor overdose awareness vigil


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 08-27-2022 11:28 PM

Tera Howard has her brother’s nickname tattooed on the inside of her right wrist — “Choch” in black script, surrounded by an infinity symbol, three birds and a heart. Its visibility is intentional. The Windsor resident wants to talk about her little brother, Carlton George “Choch” Murphy III.

She wants to tell you about his talent for drawing, his love of rap music and the serious expression he wore in family photographs, that is until she whispered a joke in his ear to get him to let out a small smile.

She also wants to tell you about how Choch died: a fentanyl overdose on Sept. 25, 2019, when he was just 31 years old.

She will also tell you how his fate easily could have been her own.

“I’m lucky to be alive today,” said Howard, 37, who is coming up on 15 years of sobriety. “My mom could have buried both of her children.”

Howard, who was elected to the Windsor Selectboard this year, is the driving force behind the town’s first International Overdose Awareness Vigil and resource fair, which is scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, on the Windsor Common. (The rain location is the Windsor Exchange.)

“I’m doing this to keep his memory alive,” Howard said. “If we can take this and make any kind of positive out of this, maybe he didn’t die in vain.”

Howard started using drugs when she was 14 years old and developed a cocaine addiction. By age 22, “I was really bad into it,” she said. But she had the trappings of a stable life. She was working and in school to become a medical assistant. She had a boyfriend, a dog, a car and a house.

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“I was completely in denial,” she said.

Then everything changed.

She and her boyfriend broke up, she lost her job, dropped out of school and found herself back in Windsor sleeping on a friend’s couch. One day, she decided she’d had enough and called her mother, who worked with her ex-boyfriend to get her into a detox program.

“When reality hit me, I took it pretty hard,” Howard said. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to get out of this.’ ”

Howard entered an intensive outpatient program, and despite a relapse, she ultimately got sober. She recalled buying some pills from a friend days before her 23rd birthday and then deciding to return them.

“That was life-changing for me,” Howard said.

She moved in with her aunt and started working part-time in food service at an assisted living facility, which turned into a full-time job as a resident assistant.

“I really started getting my life back,” Howard said.

For a time, Howard’s brother also was doing all right. After dropping out of high school, he started working construction and other jobs befitting his tall stature.

But as Howard was getting better, Murphy was getting worse.

“He was working. He had his own place for a little,” Howard recalled. “I noticed a change when he started using heroin.”

He hid it, but in hindsight there were signs. She recalled the long-sleeve shirts Murphy would wear under a T-shirt to hide injection marks on his arms.

“I would look in his eyes, and it wasn’t my brother anymore,” she said.

Then came 2019.

“That whole last year was the worst year of his life,” she said

20 feet away

Five months before his death, Murphy was hospitalized following a suicide attempt. He needed to be intubated, which led to pneumonia, and eventually he was put into a coma.

“I prayed so hard. I begged God not to take my brother,” Howard said.

She started looking to fly her mother in from California to say goodbye. For seven days, Howard was at his bedside. After he woke up, they talked about getting him help for his substance misuse.

“He was really receptive to getting help,” Howard said. “I was so happy. I thought I was going to get my brother back.”

Over the next three days they started talking about the future. But Murphy’s state of mind began to shift. He began to insist he did not have a drug problem. Howard tried to get him placed on a psychiatric hold but was told he didn’t qualify.

“I tried pleading with him,” Howard said. “He just ended up mad at me because I wanted him to get help.”

Two days later, Murphy’s father called their mother to report Murphy had started using heroin again.

“And then he was off,” Howard said.

After that, Howard didn’t see Murphy much. His contact with the family was sporadic, so Howard would call his friends to check to see if he was still alive. A couple weeks before his death, the siblings ran into each other at a pizza shop and parted with a hug.

“Our last words to each other were, ‘I love you,’ and I’m so grateful for that,” Howard said. “Two weeks after I saw him, I got that phone call at 4 in the morning.”

Murphy was staying on a friend’s couch when he went into the bathroom to use what turned out to be pure fentanyl.

He never came out. No one was charged in connection with his death.

Howard retrieved Murphy’s backpack, which was never far from his side.

“There was Narcan in his backpack, and his backpack was 20 feet away from him,” she said, referring to the overdose reversal drug.

Before his funeral, Howard went to see him in his coffin. She bought him a new New York Yankees cap to be buried in so that she could keep the one he always wore.

At his service, so many people showed up. She heard about how loved her brother was. But what bothers her the most is he never felt that.

“He died feeling like nobody loved him, and I just wish he knew how many people loved him,” Howard said. “I really wish he could have seen himself the way everyone else did.”

‘She does the heavy lifting’

Howard joined Facebook groups for others who lost loved ones to overdoses. She learned about International Overdose Awareness Day, “then I thought, ‘Why wasn’t our community doing one?’ ” When she was elected to the Selectboard, she figured out how to make that happen.

Howard reached out to Jill Lord, director of Community Health at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center; Heather Prebish, of Groups Recover Together; Melanie Sheehan, who chairs the Mt. Ascutney Prevention Partnership; and Mary McNaughton, a Windsor resident who volunteers for many town endeavors.

“You get a lot of people who say, ‘I’m the idea person, I need someone else to do the work.’ She does the heavy lifting,” Windsor Town Manager Tom Marsh said about Howard. “This wouldn’t happen if Tera wasn’t doing it.”

While other community organizations have held substance misuse events in Windsor and done a variety of outreach efforts, it is different coming from someone who has personal experiences with addiction.

“The fact that she chose to run for public office in a community where that story was known to many shows a lot of personal courage, and she’s making the best of it,” Marsh said. “I’m just impressed with her.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, overdose rates rose across the country, and Vermont was not immune. From 2020 to 2021, the state had a 33% increase in overdose deaths, from 158 to 210 deaths, according to data from the state Department of Health. Fentanyl played a role in 93% of opioid-related deaths.

In 2020, Windsor County was No. 1 county per capita for both location of death and victim’s residence for fatal overdoses. In 2021, it dropped to seventh per capita for residence and fifth for location of death.

Those numbers could be seen as encouraging, but they offer an incomplete picture of a complicated problem, especially with changes the pandemic brought to transportation, supply chains and health data collection.

“It’s hard to know what’s effective,” Lord said about methods to address substance use. “I use the definition that if it has an effect on one person, it’s effective. If you affect one person you affect a family unit.”

Another kind of grief

There’s a clinical term for what people who lose loved ones to addiction go through: “disenfranchised grief.”

“It’s that grief that comes with those things we don’t really talk about,” said Darcy Rine, a grief counselor and bereavement program coordinator at Bayada Home Health Care. (The term also applies to losing loved ones to murder or suicide.) “They almost feel like they don’t have the right to grieve or they can’t talk about (their loss).”

Howard said she was filled with guilt that she didn’t try enough to help him. She was the older sibling. She was supposed to prevent this.

“I felt like I didn’t do enough, that I let my little brother down,” Howard said. “When you lose someone to an overdose, you’re left with all the what-ifs.”

Disenfranchised grief doesn’t follow typical grieving patterns. For example, when a person who has had a long-term illness dies, relatives often experience “anticipatory grief.” They know the loss is coming and they can prepare for it. When someone dies from an overdose, it’s often sudden and shocking. Some, like Howard, have their grief compounded by feeling like they didn’t do enough to help.

“It’s never definite with drug addiction that this is the course it will take. When the loss happens, it’s a loss of the person, but it’s also the loss of the idea that this is going to get better,” Rine said. “Their life didn’t start at the start of their addiction. It started before that. There are memories and good times, and that doesn’t go away.”

For Howard, those memories are plentiful. There was the time when they were children and had gotten ice cream cones; Howard dropped hers on the ground. Then Murphy did, too. If his sister couldn’t eat her ice cream, he didn’t want his, either. Another time, Howard and been pushed off her bike by a neighborhood bully, and Murphy defended her. She holds onto those memories.

“It’s really important that those who are grieving a loss for those from addiction should know that it’s OK to talk about it and that their loss is real and valid,” Rine said.

That was one of the reasons Dottie Moffitt helped found Hartford’s annual overdose awareness vigil, which will have its seventh event Wednesday, beginning at 6:30 p.m. at Lyman Point Park in White River Junction.

“We were really upset seeing people’s comments on Facebook under articles, just people being extremely callous, that they deserve to die, that they were worthless,” said Moffitt, who works as a drug and alcohol counselor. “We wanted to do something where we could honor people who had passed away due to this epidemic.”

The first year, they read 70 names of people who died from drug overdoses. This year, it will be around 500. They never remove names from the list; they add to it every year.

A staple of Hartford’s vigil is to have people in recovery speak about their experiences. At least two of this year’s speakers were brought back using Narcan, the brand name for the overdose reversal drug naloxone, before they entered recovery.

“I think that that can be helpful to other people who are in the throes of their addiction to be able to see that their life doesn’t have to remain in this jail caused by substance use disorder, that they can get well and they’re worthy of getting well,” Moffitt said.

That’s been the case for Howard. Six years ago, she met her husband, Allen, whom she married in 2020. When they met, he’d been a single parent to his daughter, Bailey, for years. Part of what attracted Allen to Howard was her enthusiasm about stepping up to help raise Bailey, who is now a teenager. Howard has been her role model.

“She’s been the person who’s done it, overcame it. She’s been the family member and friend trying to help someone,” Allen Howard said. “You can have a good life and be successful, find love, find happiness and find something you’re passionate about.”

At Windsor’s vigil, Tera Howard will bring a photo of her brother and light a candle in his honor. She will also be bringing a photo of her birth father, who she recently learned died of an overdose too. She will encourage people to carry Narcan, even if they don’t know someone who is using, because there’s a chance that they can save someone’s life. She will tell both her story and her brother’s.

“It’s OK that it’s sad. It’s always going to be sad,” Howard said. “Sometimes it just helps to listen to people talk and know you’re not alone.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.