Learning the Language of Grief: Telling a Twinless Twin About Their Twin

July 13, 2015

My son woke up tonight from a nightmare. He told me his best friend was dead. As a parent of a twinless twin, the symbolism was very difficult for me. A best friend. Dead. Could the image in his nightmare have been his brother? How do you go about telling a little boy that there actually was a death in the family? That his dreams could have to do with someone that very really is missing? That every day you imagine what it might feel like calling out your dead son’s name? That you imagine the bliss it might bring to be able just to hear his voice?

Since my son William died I’ve struggled with how to tell his twin Elliott about it.

As much as I can speak to depression, PTSD, anxiety, or the other struggles that come with trauma, the hard part is grief. Because there isn’t anything to hold on to. There are no words. It’s an abyss, and there is nothing recognizable there. The image in my mind is of dark blue waters without foliage, without light. Dark blue. Language fails you. It is heavy and thick with water. Thusly, at least for me, it’s really hard to invite sweet Elliott into that abyss to swim with us.

For us, Bastille Day (the French revolution’s anniversary- July 14) was when everything stopped. We had thought from the first ultrasound that we’d had some crazy twin life coming. We prepared for them. When we found out they were both boys we thought it would be wild. Then I went into preterm labor. Then they were born too early. Then William got sick. We held him. They kept coming in to check him. We stayed with him, he was in our arms. We languished, staring at this beautiful tiny boy in our embrace, in disbelief that so soon after meeting him we would have to say goodbye, but forced by the very nature of our momentary experience to acknowledge that it would happen within hours. We loved him with every molecule in our bodies. We were breathless with grief and attachment. He died. I kissed him. They took him away. My memory of the night plays back in this incredible slow motion, each moment permanently burned into my memory. Then, Elliott spent the next three months in NICU.

It was unworldly.

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A walk at Salvation Mountain. Photo credit: John McGibbon

When you become a parent, you don’t expect that one of the lessons you’ll have to impart is that of how to grieve. Even though you know that your child will have their own pains, their own struggles, their own sense of groundlessness at times as they grow, it’s your hope that at least there will be a break, a reprieve, a pause before they have to learn how to navigate something so utterly difficult, a time where they can bask in unconditional love without the notion of pain. But sometimes that’s not the case.

I had thought that there was some way I could make myself into an “expert” about death and loss. I had thought that by reading numerous books on the subject, at some point it would dawn on me that there were steps: that there would be some kind of clear sense of understanding or path that grief forged. The “right” way of mourning would become apparent. These rumored “stages” I hear about that seem like they might have the power to neatly organize the miasma of emotions and feelings that swarm when meditating on this experience. That I would *know* it was time to tell Elliott, and that he would be ready for it. But no, unfortunately the ways of talking about it are almost as mesmerizing and confusing as the event itself. There is no right, there is no wrong. As parents, you often end up navigating the world of grief alone, and hope for the best. The destabilization of the loss of a twin at birth has it’s own twin, that of the telling your survivor and how to know when and how to do it.


Soul collage® card representing the shifts that come with grief. Artwork: Kara Wahlin

And then the further you settle into this new world, this world without your beloved child, you realize that their presence is there, silently, in most of what you do. Their memory is what inspires you to move forward. You realize, too, what you missed in going through your own grief, when most people turned away from it. You realize that you, too, might have tried to turn away from it were it not for the love of your surviving twin. You realize that pain is one of the few things that connects humans to each other, and that in this very humbling way, your grief opens your heart to the plight of so many others going through loss, because there’s something about that unspeakable nature of suffering that binds you to others in that same place. You realize that talking about death isn’t necessarily terrible, that the culture around you is just so scared to speak of it because it is the unknown. You realize that by standing with your surviving child through grief, you can show them what it feels like to not be alone inside of it. That even if it isn’t predictable, even if it does make them “different”, even if it is confusing and disconcerting and heartbreaking, that they are not alone: they are loved, and they are in community.

In thinking of this I started to forgive myself, and I began to see the ways my husband and I had resisted the silence around our grief for William. That in not explicitly “telling the story”, we haven’t left our missing family member out of our lives; in fact, he’s with us every day, and he will be forever.

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Soul collage® card depicting my boys embracing, the world around us breaking open. Artwork: Kara Wahlin

We have adapted. We have grown. We’ve taken in what others do or have done to mourn. We’ve found and integrated what resonates with our family. I’ve tried to take on different ideas of how to practice grief, to make it visible, tangible. I really like the concept of creating art for those you’ve lost. I really like the idea of giving things away to strangers, in an anonymous form of shared suffering and remembering (the Kindness project through the Miss Foundation organizes this wonderfully). I really like the idea of breathing in and out, consciously, for everyone else in pain going through their own losses (the concept of “tonglen”, detailed in the beautiful book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron). I’ve mentioned William to Elliott in different contexts and so has his dad.  We have memory objects and go to the annual memorial for all the babies that died at his NICU. Each year on Bastille Day I look through William’s photos, his things. I re-member his story, his strength, I imagine what he would have wanted for us as a family. And as foreign as this language is, I’m trying to learn it so there’s a chance it will be more accessible to Elliott, and provide comfort as he grapples with this huge unknown at some point in his life, as he takes in more of the story.

I watch as Elliott grows. I imagine his brother beside him. I think. I remember. I wish. “My best friend is dead” as a nightmare, maybe it’s random? Maybe it’s different than I think. But I’m fairly certain he remembers too, that he recognizes the symbols around him, the gentle ways his dad and I let him know (or remind him) he didn’t come into this world alone. I would give my life to be able to see them playing together. To hear their stories and find out what interests they have in common, to be able to embrace them, breathe them in together. Unfortunately that isn’t the world that we live in. However, I can show Elliott the ways that death is an innate part of life, show him how to simply be with someone while going through a loss, how to love when even a most critical person is missing.

Loss resources: The Miss Foundation

The Compassionate Friends

Loss of multiples: Center for Loss in Multiple Birth (CLIMB)