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Raising a “Twinless Twin”

“Is he your first child?”

This question follows us around wherever we go: playing at the park, buying shrimp at the grocery store, hanging out at a mom’s group, or celebrating a friend’s birthday. This is the question I have to answer most frequently. Coincidentally, it’s also the one I find most challenging to respond to.

Most often, the truth feels too time consuming to put into words; it carries with it awkward responses and a lingering emotional toll. So I take the easy way out and simply say, “Yes.”

I know that in a few years, I won’t be the only one struggling to find an appropriate answer to this question. Alistair will have to find his own words for this story too.

“How many siblings do you have?”

This is the question my son will have to answer for homework as he draws out his family tree in school. Kids hanging upside down from monkey bars, and adults standing in line at the grocery store will all ask him if he’s “the oldest.” These are standard, every day, get-to-know-you questions. Unfortunately there just aren’t any standard answers in our family.

Understandably, being a twinless twin comes with its own array of challenges.

By definition, a twinless twin is an
individual who had a twin who has died.

A twin bond is strong. We’ve all heard about twins who can tell what the other is thinking or feeling, perhaps even experiencing each other’s pain from miles apart. Twins do everything together; right from the very start they are uniquely invested in each other’s lives.

But what about twins that were separated in the womb? Do they still feel that acute sense of loss as they grow older?

I remember sitting in the NICU, staring through the walls of a glass incubator, and wondering if my three-pound son knew that his brother was gone. Certainly he knew that something had changed.

As he grew older, I wondered if this was why he didn’t sleep well by himself. Why he has to squish his face against mine so tightly in the middle of the night. Perhaps he’s just lonely, missing the comforting sound of his brother’s heart beating alongside his.

It’s difficult to find an abundance of research on “twinless twins” and the resulting grief during infancy. But from the meager studies that do exist, they seem to say that when it comes to grief, it doesn’t matter at what stage of life the death occurs. Even in an early twin loss, the surviving twin can feel a prolonged sense of grief. Some say that the only comparable grief to losing your twin, is to that of losing your spouse.

But what exactly does grief look like in an infant or toddler?

It’s challenging to pinpoint grief in an infant. Other parents of twinless twins say that their child is more clingy, has a higher than normal degree of interest in pictures of themselves or mirrors, or has difficulty sleeping alone. Just like adults, children grieve uniquely.

I can not say with certainty how deeply Alistair has felt this loss. I do not know what future importance he will place on it (if any). By the time he is able to fully understand this loss, he may feel that he has already sufficiently grieved or he may require more time to process it.

Regardless of the way he eventually acknowledges this grief, we as parents want to be there to support him, to be open, and to talk about it.

While some twin parents chose to delay telling their survivor about the loss, we have talked about Landon from the very beginning. Alistair has and will continue to grow up with the understanding that he had a twin brother.

We do not hide this part of our family history. In the search for healing, we have allowed ourselves the opportunity to openly grieve as a family. At the same time, our family does not revolve around this death – our focus is and always will be primarily on loving and parenting the giggling munchkin in our arms.

Losing someone you love is difficult no matter your age. As parents, our job is to be there for our son throughout the ups and downs and to hopefully model for him a healthy way to work through his grief. In his pain, we will point him to the One who makes us whole.

Although our son may identify as a twinless twin, this is not his sole identity. Our identity is found in One much greater than the trials we’ve walked through or the grief we’ve experienced. Our identity is found in the God who mends broken hearts, and who has been a part of this journey with our sons from the very beginning.

Our son is a twinless twin. But he’s also so much more.

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