When One Twin Dies
by Lisa M. Fleischer
Every year a tragically high number of families face the loss of a multiple-birth child (in our case, a twin), and face a seemingly impossible task of saying goodbye and grieving for one baby, while at the same time caring for and welcoming his twin.
Not only have these parents lost a child, they have also lost their “twins.” The memorial service for the baby who has died can be an opportunity to recognize this very special relationship in a public way. We decided to have our daughter Sophie baptized at her twin brother Teddy’s memorial service, as a way of celebrating their twinship and as the last event they could be a part of “together.”
Our twins, Sophie and Teddy, were born September 13, 1987 at full term. Teddy suffered asphyxia due to a cord prolapse and was born with severe brain damage. Never able to move, cry or open his eyes, he spent all of this 10 days in the NICU with an extremely grim prognosis, if he indeed survived. We made the painful decision to remove our son from life support, and he died on September 23, after spending his last hours in our arms.
Both Sophie and their older sister, Mia, were present throughout this time and at the moment of death. I think because they were included in every aspect of Teddy’s life and death it was very natural for us to include them in our plans after he died.
The days after our son died were filled with decisions and planning for his memorial. A talented friend built a beautiful casket which has his name on top and which my sister-in-law and I lined with soft cotton bedding and light blue flannel edged in white eyelet and blue ribbon. She bought a sweet embroidered pillow for his head. We designed and had folders printed for the service and enclosed with them a poem about Teddy, written by my aunt. Everyone in the family pitched in to color them by hand. We discussed the possibilities for the service with our Lutheran pastor who supported our idea to have Sophie baptized at the memorial, and told us that the rainbow which had appeared in the sky on the morning of Teddy’s death would be the theme for his sermon. We also invited the Catholic priest who had been so kind to us at the hospital to participate, and he agreed. We decided to hold the service at the hospital chapel as it was smaller and more intimate than the church, and it held special meaning as Teddy had spent most of his short life in the NICU. We selected harp music, my father and mother chose hymns, and my mother played the organ. We chose special poems and writings to be read and I wrote a piece about our son.
The memorial⁄baptism was held four days after Teddy’s death. The service felt right to us. We had the baptismal banner from the church there with both Sophie and Teddy’s names on it, and the phrase “Thank you God for Sophie and Teddy.” It provided a nice focal point in the chapel. Our friends read the poems and the piece I’d written, the music was moving and soothing, and near the end of the service Sophie was baptized in a very short and simple ceremony. In his closing remarks, the priest spoke of the hope embodied in this act, and I think for everyone there, Sophie’s baptism symbolized the new beginning that both she and her brother were making, one in life and one in death.
After the service, we all returned to our home for a sort of old-fashioned wake with friends and family. Earlier in the day we had brought Teddy’s body home and kept him there with us until late in the evening. This was a way of bringing him into our family surroundings for the first and last time, as we were never able to bring him home from the hospital. His body was upstairs and most of our friends and all of the family were able to say hello and goodbye to him that day. Those who weren’t comfortable with this aspect were still able to socialize and see us. It was very much a community event.
In Teddy’s casket were many family mementos. He was dressed in the suit which matched the one Sophie wore home from the hospital, wrapped in blankets which were half of sets we received for them, and wore the newborn hat she was given when she was born. We surrounded his tiny form with wildflowers and placed photos of all our family with him. Before we took his body back to the funeral home, his father placed his favorite book of poetry in his casket and I wrote him a letter which I also sent with him.
That evening, after everyone had said goodbye to Teddy, we took his body to the funeral home to be cremated. We all took turns saying our final goodbyes – including Mia and Sophie. Our friend who had made the casket had fashioned the cover with wooden pegs to close it, so all of us hammered in a peg and the casket closed. We left in a shower of tears, with one baby now instead of two. We still have Teddy’s ashes at home. We intended to bury them this past summer, but it was not the right time yet, so we planted a flowering crabapple tree instead. We may very well wait until Sophie is old enough to participate before we make our final decision about his ashes, since it is important to us that she feel comfortable with our choice. Participating in the decision may help facilitate Sophie’s own grief about what she lost when Teddy died, and give her a concrete way to express her feelings for him when she is old enough to understand.
We have numerous photographs of all aspects of Teddy’s time with us, both before and after he died. We are so grateful to have so many mementos of our son, not only for ourselves but for our daughters. Already Sophie, at 15 months, is looking at pictures of her twin brother and beginning to say his name. There will be no moment to “tell” her, because she will always know him. I know it is a very personal decision, but I’d like to encourage parents who lose a child and have other children to include them in whatever ways they can. Our daughter Mia was 4-1⁄2 years old when Teddy died. She visited him in the NICU; she was there to see him after the respirator was removed, to touch and hold and kiss him; she was there when he died, and said goodbye then; she participated in the memorial and wake and came to the funeral home to say her final goodbye. She was never forced or pressured to do any of these things; rather, it seemed to be an extension of her involvement during the pregnancy, very natural and easy for her. She seemed to accept events as they happened – she cried when she was sad, laughed when she was happy, played and fooled around like any child her age. She has never exhibited any negative reaction from participating, and since we never kept her away from what was happening, we have always been able to talk openly and freely about her brother’s injury and death.
That is not to say that it is always easy or that we can answer all her questions, but at least she was there to participate and understand at her level. So there aren’t any secrets and she has a lot of information to work with. She has always been able to express her sadness and natural curiosity about Teddy, and we in turn have not felt the need to hide our grief from her. It has been a shared family process.
We also had two nephews, ages 9 and 12, who really appreciated the opportunity to participate in the service and wake as they had never seen their cousin when he was alive. It allowed them to see him, and to know him as a real person. They, too, had no negative reactions to this experience.
Based on our positive experiences with the children in the family, I strongly feel that children need these opportunities just as much as adults, and should be allowed to participate just as much as they wish. We underestimate our kids so much in their abilities to understand and process these life and death issues. I think we tend to project our own doubts and fears onto them, when they actually can accept and deal with death so much more clearly than adults, if they are given the choice.
by Lisa Fleischer & Doug Blankensop
(read at the memorial service)
As Teddy’s parents, we wanted to say something about what his short life meant to us, especially since many of our friends never knew him. Teddy’s given name is “Theo” (tay-o), which means “gift of God,” and his time with us was truly that.
Teddy was never able to cry or move or open his eyes, but through his dignified and graceful presence he taught us so much. We learned the hardest and most painful lessons as we studied his peaceful face and touched his still little body. We learned the folly of believing that we have control over what happens in our lives, and the wisdom of letting go when the time comes. We found depths of hurt and strength in ourselves we’d never known and watched the boundaries drawn between birth, life and death blur until they cease to exist or matter. We discovered as a family how much we could do for each other in the face of a crisis and how much the love and support of friends mean at such a time. We realized the miracle that is a healthy child and the dedication of those who spend their lives caring for our children, whether unborn or well or sick. We found our faith and beliefs withstanding much searching and testing, bearing us up when the waves of doubt threatened to sweep us under. We became aware that there is an essence, a life force beyond what we call “personality,” and that this is what we came to know in our son, and how he communicated so much to us. He was quiet teacher.
The greatest gift that Teddy brought was the lesson of his dying. This is the most important thing we can share with all of you. We were with Teddy as he slipped away, little by little, through the night: holding and rocking and comforting him, knowing this was the last loving thing we could do for him in life. Early in the morning, his little body became too tired to keep going any longer, and his breath and heart finally stopped. In those first few moments after his life ended, an amazing change came over his face. We watched as all the pain and struggle faded and his features became more and more lovely. It was a kind of most perfect beauty we had never seen before – he looked like what we imagine an angel should be. We were seeing his original face, the face of his soul before it returned home. There was no ordeal, or sadness or fear, only victory and peace. This is how we will always remember Teddy’s face.
In his leaving, Teddy taught us that there is nothing to fear in dying. We hide from death in our ignorance and fear, but once we meet death face to face, we can know the beauty there, as well as the sadness. We no longer need to worry about Teddy, because we have seen him go to the most wonderful place, the most peaceful place. There were no miracles for Teddy while he was here, but this was the miracle he gave to all of us.
Reprinted with gratitude from bittersweethellogoodbye by National SHARE (1989)