Interview – a surviving twin of SIDS

Recently I talked with a 12-year-old girl, Jennifer, who is a surviving twin of a SIDS victim, about what it is like growing up without her twin sister. Since the death of one of my twins from SIDS in 1987, I have often wondered what it is like for a child to grow up knowing that someone with whom he or she had shared everything from the time of conception and in some cases was a genetic duplicate, was only here for a short while. I also wonder if I’m taking the right approach in teaching my surviving twin about her brother’s existence. It is important to me that my son be remembered, but perhaps in my eagerness to insure that my daughter grows up with an awareness of her twin, I am exposing her to too much knowledge about death at too early an age. I appreciated the opportunity to talk to a thoughtful young girl who is old enough to both understand and articulate what it has been like to be the surviving twin.

Jennifer Lee and Kimberly Ann were fraternal twins, born one month premature on October 15, 1977. Kimberly died during a family outing in the car on December 29, 1977. During the outing, their mother fed Jennifer first because she was “the rotten one, who always had to be fed first,” and when she went to feed Kimberly, she discovered that the baby was not breathing. Jennifer feels that she remembers her twin sister and can picture an instance in which she, her twin sister and her older sister Karen were all together being fed. She is not sure if this is an actual memory or is an image that formed in her mind after being told about it.

While growing up Jennifer has always imagined her sister as being the same age as she is. She feels a sense of loss because she has missed out on the “neat” experience of having a twin sister who would also be her “best friend”. She also wonders how her family life would be different with a “whole other person” present; if the family would still live in the same house, if they would be “richer or poorer”. She still spends time thinking about what her sister would have been like. Last year, Jennifer decided she would like to change her name, and she and her “friends on the bus”, after trying various combinations of her and her twin’s names, settled on Jennifer LeeAnn.

Jennifer and her family commemorate her sister’s life with visits to the cemetery near the birthday, and after Christmas. When she was young, Jennifer took toys to her twin’s grave figuring “it was her birthday too”, and the family takes their wreaths to the grave after Christmas. She is close to her father at these times, as they both stand at the grave and cry and talk about what she would have been like. They also like to lay a wreath in the water during the “Fleet of Flowers” ceremony near her grandparents’ home which honors those lost at sea.

As she was growing up, Jennifer remembers occasional discussions about her twin with her mother, and asking questions about it “every now and then”. The subject still comes up sometimes. She remembers that when she started school, she met other twins in her class. She would tell people that she was a twin, and when the person asked where her twin was, she would reply “I don’t know” because she didn’t know how to explain it. She also told people that she had two sisters, Kim and Karen, and people would get “mad” at her because she couldn’t explain where her one sister was. Eventually she started telling people that her sister died.

Jennifer does not usually try to tell people about her sister unless the subject comes up for some reason. She first tells people that her sister died of “SIDS” and if they don’t understand she will say “crib death”. If they still don’t understand, she will explain that her sister stopped breathing when she was a baby. People sometimes act like they do not believe her. Jennifer does not like to try to explain it to people who don’t understand. Last year, a teacher assigned the class to a composition on “Your Earliest Memories”. Jennifer wrote about her twin sister but was uncomfortable when the teacher later read her work to the class.

Some things that have been difficult for Jennifer are books like the Sweet Valley Twins series, and an event at her school called “Twins Day”. She particularly remembers a “Twins Day” in kindergarten when all the twins dressed alike, and she could not participate. In later years, the school still had Twins Day occasionally, but it has been changed so that any students can dress alike if they wish. It does not bother Jennifer to have friends who are twins.

It is encouraging to know that in spite of the death of her twin in infancy, Jennifer feels that she has had a normal childhood, although she thinks it might have been different if the loss had occurred at a later age.

by Alice. whose twin son Patrick died of SIDS