Where to begin? – Parents’ grief

There are so many aspects that it’s hard to know where to begin. It almost seems like these articles should be arranged in a circle instead of a list. But if there is one thing that is the most important, we think it’s looking at the grief of parents who lose a twin or multiple, and how basic it is to how everything goes for the surviving child. While we can’t really know for sure what the baby is feeling, and whether he or she is grieving for its twin and if so in what way, what we do know is that parents grieve very deeply and are in a great deal of emotional pain. Nowadays with early ultrasound, this may even be true of parents who lose a multiple in the first or early second trimester, and of course it is especially true after that time and for mothers. We are grieving not only the death of that baby, but the loss of “my twins” or multiples. It affects us deeply in ways we never could have imagined (and as we have often said, wouldn’t wish on even our worst enemy).

What does this mean when it comes to raising a survivor?

· We think it’s so important for parents to recognize and relate to our own grief. It’s not really possible to say, “I’m ok, it’s my baby who is really in pain”. A psychologist we know who has some familiarity with this area said, when we first met, “For things to go well with the child, it needs to go well for the parents. How can good come for the child unless there is good for the parents?!” By that she meant the parents recognizing their own grief and doing anything and everything that a bereaved parent needs to do to grieve and find support, even though that can be difficult while caring for a tiny survivor. We all want our child to be happy – and over the years we’ve seen that when parents do grieve, both they and their children end up happier, without “trying”. Unfortunately, many of us are under incredible pressure within ourselves and from others to act like everything is ok, and that’s not the same as being happy, or even really ok.

A number of professionals we’ve met seem to agree that while it’s certainly possible that survivors miss their twin on some level, survivors of pregnancy and birth loss probably take their cues from their parents on how they relate to their loss of their twin. Some older survivors we’ve talked to, whose parents did not have the permission or opportunity to grieve openly and have support, have said that it seemed like their parents were “stuck in the day it happened”, “as traumatized years later as they were on the day it happened” and that it made it very hard for the surviving child. A woman whose mother lost one of her twin boys near term, and then had her a year later, told us how she came home from school when she was 11 and announced that she was going to be skipping a grade and going into the class of her brother, the surviving twin. When she said, “Now we’ll be like twins!” her mother started screaming and ran from the room, and they didn’t know why. In other words, not talking about it and acting like everything is fine doesn’t work, even though we very much want to be “happy” for our survivor.

More recently, more of us have had the permission and the opportunity to have some support, and so be able to find ways to get through the trauma and relate to our loss as part of our life. Not only does this help our child directly, in the way that we’re able to be with him or her, but it sets an example of dealing with loss, painful as it is, as part of life.

· Up until about 20 years ago, most women and couples experiencing pregnancy loss and infant death had little or no support at the time or after. The message from society was “pretend it didn’t happen and get on with it”. This was even more true for mothers who experienced the death of a twin or multiple. From what we can see, mothers were usually not permitted to see (let alone hold) their baby, or the twins together; were often not “allowed” to leave the hospital until the baby was buried (let alone plan a special service); and usually did not receive anything at all as a memento of the twin who died, or anything tangible to show that they had had twins. The baby was often not named, or not officially named. Many, possibly most, mothers were warned that they should never say anything because it would greatly harm their surviving child. Also, most never received a clear medical explanation of why their baby died, and some were told things like, “This one strangled the other one with its cord”, or “This one starved the other one to death.”

Today, we all know how difficult it is to lose a twin, even with more support, and we know how hard it can be to have even some of those things happen to us (for example, many in our group have not been able to hold both their babies at the same time, or have a good photo of their twin who died, and some have been told never to look sad). But ALL of the above was pretty much the rule for all mothers in the past, and there were no groups or sources of information to turn to if they had wanted to or dared to. It was not even that likely to meet another mother who had lost a twin and be able to talk.

How would this affect the survivors? We have had a number of adult survivors say to us, “No wonder I was lonely – my mother never bonded to me!” and “No wonder I missed my twin and felt that if he were here, everything would be ok!” Others have said that their mother seemed to blame them, and their father would never talk about it. One whom we knew wrote that her parents always seemed to blame her for not being a boy, since they had preferred one and it was her brother who died. Others have felt that their home was filled with chronic sorrow that had something closely to do with them, and that no one talked about. One said that she would have been so grateful for her parents to say ANYthing, rather than nothing. Another was relieved when her parents talked to her when she was 16 (and having her own child), even though they said that she had strangled her sister.

· We think this is also important to keep in mind when reading and hearing about twin survivors. There are a number of interesting books and articles out there that touch on or describe twin survivors, and sometimes talk about survivors of pregnancy and birth losses; and some of them are worthwhile reading, such as Joan Woodward, PhD’s book (see our Bibliography) There are also things that we hear in the media and elsewhere about the twin bond, and about survivors of adult twin losses and survivors in general. It’s important to know that survivors who are adults now generally had that unsupported type of situation in their family, and some of their anguish and feelings of loss may have come as part of it. Things may have been even more difficult or different than they needed to be for them, because of being more difficult for their parents without support and validation. We think that when this generation of survivors grows up, with their parents having had more support, we’ll be able to know more about how it “really” is for survivors, and for parents.

Till then, people who haven’t lost a twin child finding the twin bond interesting, and adults feeling some relief in finding out they had a twin who died during pregnancy or after, should not translate into parents of a tiny survivor feeling that their baby is fated to suffer because of being a twin. We think it’s wise for parents to take some of what they may hear with a healthy grain of salt, and trust their own perceptions about what is and isn’t happening.

· It’s also important to keep some of these things in mind when thinking about what we know or see of our own child as a surviving twin. One of the hardest things for many of us was looking at our surviving baby, knowing that we had had twins, yet seeing only one baby with no one next to him or her…and “seeing double”, looking at one and trying to imagine both of them together and what it would be like now. It’s hard to say goodbye without saying hello, and those of us who didn’t get to experience our twins together after birth, or experience others recognizing us as the parent of twins, seem to have a special need to establish our child as a twin.

So, many of us seem to look for something concrete that shows that our child is really a twin. My personal favorite with my son was his small stature and growth curve (and today he is 5’4″ at full grown, and prefers to “blame” it on his twin brother rather than on random bad luck!) Other parents wonder about shyness (more on that later – but most survivors do have mothers who are fearful for them). Some wonder if their baby or child’s unhappiness at times, or certain other behaviors (such as having an imaginary friend), means they are missing their twin. It’s really possible that it does. But if a 1-year-old sole surviving triplet really enjoys playing with other babies her age, does it mean that she “must be in such unimaginable pain”?…when all we know for sure is that it can be very painful for us moms to see our survivor play with other babies of the same age, who are not our lost multiple child or children.

There do seem to be examples of children “remembering” physical experiences in the womb or during birth, and physical memories may play a part in what they like to do, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to emotional pain, or emotional pain of the same kind as the parents’. (For example, when my son was around 3 months old, he loved to have me recreate his situation before birth for him in a certain way, bouncing upside down, packed in and with his brother thumping on him – he totally loved it and would throw himself backwards to make me do it, and laugh. From birth till 8 months, he hated having the light turned off at night, and cried pitifully until it would be turned back on, even though he was otherwise always calm and happy – it may have related to how it seemed just before his birth, when his brother died so suddenly.)

One of the biggest reasons for getting support, if not THE biggest, is to be able to “see” our child’s needs and feelings, whatever they are or aren’t, as clearly as possible, instead of seeing in them our own pain, or risk ignoring theirs by saying the opposite, that they’re completely ok but we are not.

We think that even though the grief felt by parents is not likely to be the same as whatever is felt by survivors of pregnancy and birth loss (at the time of the loss, and as they get older), the experience of parents and the experience of survivors are NOT separate. It might seem that way to older survivors whose parents never, ever spoke of it. What so many of us have seen in raising our own survivor and trying to be emotionally open, is that our experiences are really intertwined, on a day-to-day level, from earliest times. Children, even the tiniest babies, are made to be very sensitive beings who see, feel and “know” so much about their environment – especially about the main person to whom they’re attached and who cares for them, and especially about anything that relates closely to them. Mothers communicate with their children in every way from the very beginning, and babies and children sense from us so much more than what can be put into adult words. With all that in mind, the topic of the next article is how we can relate to our survivor about the loss of his or her twin in an ongoing way that is based on his or her needs, while we simultaneously deal with all the challenges of grieving and loving all at the same time, and all in the same package, “my twins”.