Mom Includes Murdered Boy in Heartbreaking Christmas Photos as Important Holiday Reminder

AshBee Photography

Cassandra Tanner-Miller has survived the worst of what life could have thrown at her -- from domestic abuse to the tragic death of her 18-month-old son Colton at the hands of her estranged husband. But now, the Plainfield, Illinois, mom is commemorating her son's life with a series of heartbreaking Christmas photos, and she's speaking out on behalf of all parents who are grieving during the holidays.

  • Cassandra's world completely fell apart on September 21, 2019.

    Speaking with CafeMom, Cassandra says that she had been home with Colton and her 9-year-old daughter, Camryn, when her estranged husband, Christopher Miller, suddenly broke in.

    "[Christopher] came to my house that day to murder all three of us," she shares. "My son Colton lost his life while he was sleeping at the hands of his monstrous father."

    Christopher brutally beat Cassandra and her daughter before shooting Colton nine times while he napped, according to an October 25 post on Colton's Legacy, a Facebook page she created to honor her son's life.

    A GoFundMe page set up for the family, which has since been closed, explained that Miller barged into the home "with a smile on his face" and told his family, "Are you all ready to die today? We're all dying today!"

    He beat Cassandra until he thought she was dead, as well as beating Camryn and trying to strangle her, although she managed to escape and run for help, according to Colton's Legacy Facebook page. Miller then shot Colton before he turned the gun on himself and ended his life, Patch reported.

    Even now, months later, the pain from that day is still fresh.

    "In a way Camryn and I died that day in our home with Colton," Cassandra tells us. "We will never be the same people after surviving a domestic attack like this."

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  • Originally, Cassandra had plans to do a family photo shoot in October, but after the attack she decide to take a different course.

    "I have always loved photos," she says, adding that "photos are a permanent way to capture a memory." 

    "I wanted to be able to have a photo to capture the memory of our holiday season," she continues. "One that would capture my daughter still here with me on earth and one that would capture Colton here on earth in our hearts and thoughts."

    Working with her best friend, photographer Ashley Strizzo Richey of AshBee Photography, the two came up with a touching idea to merge the image of Colton with a photo of Cassandra and Camryn.

    "I know God allows Colton as an angel to come down to us and visit with us," Cassandra says. "Even though we may not be able to see him with our eyes, we know he is here with us. What better way to create a forever memory than to bring that knowing of him being here to the reality of seeing him here with my daughter and I than to create photos that show our beautiful little family together forever and always?"

  • For the grieving mother, Christmas 2019 was a painful reminder of everything she's lost.

    But she knows she's far from alone. 

    On December 18, Cassandra posted some of the photos to Colton's Legacy. In doing so, she hoped to show others what grief is truly like in the days before Christmas -- a hard truth far too many families have to deal with each year.

    "Grief doesn’t have a time limit and on the 21st of this month it will be three months since I felt my son in my arms, breastfed him, kissed him, and heard his sweet little voice say momma," she wrote.

    Time has yet to heal Cassandra's wounded heart, though she says that this time of year can be especially hard for all families suffering from a recent loss.

    "I think each family will grieve differently, but we all share a similarity, and it’s a yearning for our life we used to have with our child," she tells CafeMom. "There is not a moment that we don’t think about our child. We replay their angel day over and over in our heads. 

    "My family grief, personally, has many dynamics," she says. "My parents yearn for their daughter, which is me, because the person who lived through [that] tragedy is not the same daughter they knew prior to that day. They mourn the old me who isn’t at their home in the evenings sobbing and wailing on their laps over the loss of Colton.

    "They get to relive the day in which they were driving to the hospital where Camryn and I were, only to tell me that Colton had been murdered by Christopher Miller."

  • But most of all, Cassandra says she mourns the loss of her own daughter's innocence. 

    "My daughter's grief is hard, and I wish I could wave a magical wand over her and take away the sadness," she explains. "She is still just a child herself, so Christmas for her still has magic from Santa in it, yet this ever-looming darkness of [the death of] her best friend Colton, her baby brother."

    She continues, "Christmas to my whole family this year is more about going through the motions because we still have to live for Camryn and for Colton. The grief as a mother I feel this time of year is one that rips into your soul at every moment that you aren’t completely overwhelmed by activities or chores that you give yourself to stay busy so your mind doesn’t have a chance to wander. But when you slow down from going 100 mph to 90 mph the sadness hits like a freight train." 

  • Cassandra says that for most grieving parents, the holiday season can make it even harder to create a new sense of "normal."

    "The mental preparation that takes place for a grieving parent every second of every day to be able to function amongst the living that have not experienced this type of pain is a strength that cannot even be described properly with words," Cassandra says. 

    It can also be hard to deal with well-meaning friends and family, who may not be aware that their words can sting.

    "We have to mentally prepare for the awkward words spoken by others who honestly don’t mean to [be cruel] to stop and think. They are just trying to show compassion," she adds. "The horrible things that people say that unfortunately cause discomfort and more pain [are] just layers on the emotional pain we already feel.

    "Of course, you cannot fault any of the above because well. They don’t know this type of pain -- and I am so happy for them that they don’t," she says.

  • The heartfelt holiday photos offer Cassandra a new way to stay connected to her son.

    Cassandra Tanner-Miller
    Cassandra Tanner-Miller

    "When I see pictures of Colton, the initial feeling is peaceful for a moment," Cassandra admits. "Then as I stare at the photo, the sadness fills my heart and my soul."

    She says that it's as if she gets her son back -- even if only for a moment. And Cassandra says keeping Colton alive and spreading awareness about domestic violence was the main reason why she created the Facebook page in his honor.

    "Domestic violence is pushed off to the side from every aspect of the general public, police, military and judicial system," she explains. "The victims of tragedy usually do not survive this type of attack, and now that I am surviving and my daughter is surviving, I want my son to survive through memories, words, and legislation to make sure domestic violence and tragedy isn’t brushed off anymore."

    As she notes, "My son was a perfectly healthy, happy, and beautiful 18-month-old the day his life was violently taken from him and me."

    Now these holiday photos hold even more meaning.

    "I will never get to take a new photo or video of him alive," she says. "What a horrible sentence to type. But it’s the reality of my life."

    Cassandra wants other grieving parents to know that they aren't alone and that "when God calls us home we will once again be reunited with our babies and will spend eternity together. It doesn’t make this journey easier with knowing that, but it will push us forward in this journey of life as a parent."

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