Talking to Sophie about her twin brother Teddy

Sitting here late at night (or early in the morning) it is easy to remember the last moments I had with my son. Here in the quiet of a still house, the heart-tearing pain of that time cuts into my consciousness with knife-like precision. But, here, almost five years later, the pain is an “invited guest” –no longer an unwelcome intruder. Sometimes it still comes without calling first, but it usually leaves when I ask or need it to go.

The road to this place has been long and winding. I have gone many places I never expected to go on this journey and I have learned that this is the nature of grief. So…I expect there are a few places on this trip that I haven’t yet seen. Perhaps by sharing a little of my experience in coping with the death of my twin son, another family may find an idea or two to help them navigate this road.

I must say that our family was fortunate in some respects. Our babies were fullterm and our surviving daughter never suffered any health problems. Teddy (who was born with severe brain damage due to a cord accident) lived for 10 days on life support. Those were days which gave us an opportunity to see, touch and hold him, to take pictures; to prepare for his death. Because we removed our son from life support we were able to be with him when he died and to say goodbye with our family, who were very supportive to us. We also had the luxury of good information about the death of a child (and a twin) to draw upon. I realize these opportunities are not available in many situations and I know many families also have very fragile survivors. Others may have situations which make grief even more “complicated” than ours.

One of the most urgent issues for me was: How is my surviving baby experiencing the death of her twin brother? What is this loss like for her? How will this be for her in the future?

From the moment of birth our daughter had a painfully piercing look which told us she knew something had changed drastically in her world. She was a clingy and fussy baby who would not let me out of her sight without screaming in protest, for the better part of two years. My guts told me that Sophie was impacted deeply by her sudden separation from her twin. I also knew that my own intense grief probably fed into shaping some of these behaviors in my daughter no matter how hard I tried to give her a “normal” babyhood. How much of what is Sophie is due to the loss itself and how much is about my own response to the loss? How much is just her own unique personality? There is no way to know.

At the other end of almost 5 years, I have a relatively well-adjusted daughter who has grown up always knowing about her brother.

As Sophie grew and developed her brother remained very much a part of our family life despite his physical absence. Our older daughter, Mia (who was 4 1/2 when the twins were born and Teddy died) needed to talk about and remember him as did we all. We are lucky to have many pictures of Teddy which have proved invaluable in keeping our first son’s memory alive for our other children. These have been a great steppingstone for our surviving twin’s understanding of her brother and their relationship.

We have never “told” Sophie about her twin. Rather, we have let her learn about him as she learned about the rest of her family. Using a photo of Teddy, we played a very simple naming game as she began to babble and talk which introduced her to our relationships. “What’s Mommy’s name? “What’s Daddy’s name?” “What’s your sister’s name?” I would say and then I’d answer, “Lisa”, or “Doug”, or “Mia”. “What’s your brother’s name?– Teddy.” (We had already familiarized her with his photo and his name since her early weeks). “What’s your kitty’s name?”…etc. etc. Soon she was able to answer for herself. In this way, Teddy gently and easily became part of her vocabulary.

For a long time nothing more was really needed. We simply kept a certain level of aware-ness through our everyday activities, photos and family conversation. In our talks with our older daughter the qualities of twinship, of grief and of how Teddy died filtered to Sophie at whatever level she could grasp it.

The most striking thing Sophie did as a baby which led me to believe she knew something was missing in her life involved her bedtime ritual. When she was old enough (at 8 or 9 months) to manipulate her stuffed animals she went through a long period when after being placed in her crib she would take an animal which she was given and very deliberately turn it upside-down and place it with the head at her feet between her legs. I would often find her sleeping this way. This was poignant as this was the way she and her brother were positioned in-utero – she vertex (head down) and he breech (feet first). It seemed as though she were finding comfort in recreating, re-experiencing her twinship at bedtime.

As Sophie became a toddler and preschooler she was able to begin to process her thoughts about her brother. We talked about how she and Teddy had been in Mommy’s “tummy” together before they were born and that they were “twins”. During one particularly confusing phase (when she was just past 3 years old, at Christmas), we had baby Jesus, baby Teddy and baby Sophie all in Mommy’s tummy (and baby Teddy and Jesus died)! Basically we just presented simple facts and answered questions on her level without much explanation (and I’m relieved to say baby Jesus did work his way out of my tummy).

Needless to say there have been milestones up until recently that have been my own rather than Sophie’s. Birthdays and anniversaries, as well as holidays of all types, were especially painful and bittersweet for the first three years. Our approach has been to include our son in various ways at our family celebrations. Birthday cakes included his name, though when Sophie started having children’s parties we have had one cake for her alone, and one for the family with all the names (they were born on their Dad’s birthday). We have had candles to light on days when we are thinking of Teddy and we usually buy presents for and from him at birthdays and Christmas. We have special ornaments for the tree, etc. This is all done in a very low-key way as part of our family tradition and is very comfortable for us.

On the humorous side, if there is one, we did realize that Sophie was understanding some things one day when her sister was urging her to wear a dress that matched hers to a party they were attending. Mia was telling her, “Please, Sophie, wear it – it’s just like mine and we can be matching, like twins!” Sophie just looked at her and replied, “But I am a twin!”

In the past year, Sophie has become much more curious and talkative about Teddy. This has coincided with the birth of a brother in March, 1992, and with her becoming more verbal at the ages of 4 and 5 (she was 5 in September, 1992). The occasion of our pregnancy brought a whole new level of discussion and understanding relating to Teddy, twins and what happened in 1987. Out came the pregnancy and birth books with their photos and diagrams, many of twins. Sophie was fascinated with the whole thing and spent untold hours pouring over the information. We talked a lot about how she and her brother had been inside together and she began to tell me “how it had been”. She knew who had been in which position, that they had “played together” and other details. It was a great opportunity for her to learn more of the facts and for her to talk about her feelings and perceptions.

Sophie’s 5th birthday was the first in which she showed an active interest and understanding relating to her twin. She had very definite opinions and ideas about what she wanted to do for him on their day. Our family mythology includes the idea that balloons we lose will be “caught by our brother and great-grandfather (and assorted pets) in heaven” so this became something Sophie immediately wanted to do for him. We purchased several balloons and wrote messages from each of us on them. Sophie also felt the need to attach a special gift. This consisted of a lot of tin foil and a collage cut from a magazine. The picture she had chosen was of an advertisement for a “pregnant tummy” doll, on whose stomach she had glued pictures of two babies! All of this was carefully taped onto her balloon and miraculously it still managed to float into the sky. Needless to say it has been an interesting year!

Recently, as Christmas approaches, we bought some small artificial trees to decorate. I bought three for the children and told Sophie there was one for her, one for her sister, and one for her brothers. She emphatically replied, “No, my tree is for Teddy and me because we are twins,” and proceeded to search out a boy angel ornament to top the tree with! She has also been grappling with the idea of a “spirit” – what it is, what they look like, etc.

It has also been a very affirming time for us. For as Sophie has become more aware and talkative about her twinship we have been grateful that this has come so naturally for her. And I feel that her actions are separate from her family’s grief. There is not a sense of any “hidden agenda”, rather we watch her gain understanding and process the meaning of the relationship between her and her twin brother as she integrates that into her life. I expect that as her knowledge of life and death becomes more sophisticated, we will have more discussion about Teddy and how he fits into our family and her life.

In the first year after the twins’ birth I kept a journal in which I detailed my pregnancy and the events of their birth, Teddy’s death, and the aftermath. I wrote it “to” Sophie with the intention of sharing it with her when she is older and interested, but it was also a great tool for my healing and coping in those early months. Perhaps the best gift I gave to my other children and myself after my son’s death was to grieve as whole-heartedly as I was able and to seek as much support and help with this process as was available. It was very hard to do yet very necessary.

To summarize, our “approach” (not consciously taken for the most part) to talking to Sophie about her twin brother has been very soft and gentle, letting him always be a part of her consciousness and our family circle and letting her needs and questions lead our responses. And to take care of our own needs in grieving for our son so that our grief was not unduly displaced onto our relationship with her. None of this has been “easy” and many tears and aching moments have come along the way and surely there will be more. I cannot imagine having done things any differently.