Losing Your Twin   

Understanding twin bereavement and loss

Per definition twins are born more or less at the same time; however it is not the course of nature that they also die at the same moment. There are about 100.000 twins in this country (Denmark);  half of them will live longer than the other half.   Many are strongly affected by this loss and find that their family and acquaintances cannot fully grasp the depth of that feeling of loss.

In Britain six hundred bereaved twins joined The Lone Twin Network, founded by 74-year old, who herself lost her identical twin at the age of three.

 Owner of www.tvillinger.com  Abelone Glahn  has interviewed Joan Woodward spring 2000

Joan Woodward is at the same time a very observant and obliging woman. I  met her at her home address in Birmingham near the University.  Dressed in  casual trousers and blouse, I immediately noticed a peculiar piece of jewellery around her neck. Not very conspicuous, but rather strange. It looked like a small bird's claw, twisted, and hanging in a chain next to a tear shaped precious stone.  
But Joan Woodward is also very private even though my visit entails her talking about strong personal feelings. Not until four hours later does she reveal the story of the strange piece of jewellery,  but before that comes a deep and very personal conversation with  the woman, who almost 12 years earlier started a network for twins, who had lost their twin.  She herself is one of them.   An identical twin who at the age of three lost her sister who died of meningitis.

- " The problem with you, Joan, is that you do anything by half".  That's what a school friend once said to me, and this really hit me, because ever since I lost my sister I have always felt in some way, that I was but "a half".   Only many years later did it dawn on me that there was a deeper truth behind those words - even deeper than my friend could ever have imagined.  

Looking back I have fought against this feeling by endeavouring to be "much more than half" - and this feeling never leaves me.  For some people this may sound queer, but I have heard this time and again from other twins, once I started looking into the situation of losing your twin.   If you ask me what is the difference between losing a twin  and losing a sister or a brother, I can only answer that of course we who are twins never tried anything else, but in some way or other, the loss of a co-twin seems to make us aware that we have lost a person, who ought to be with us all the time. So without belittling the loss of a sister or brother, because I know full well that this can be hard enough for some people,  the fundamental difference seems to be that twins have been together from the very moment of conception.

 Joan Woodward is a  highly reputated psycho therapist, who in her long career has participated in and headed a number of controversial projects and other research in the UK.  In 1982 she decided to look into the consequences of deaths amongst twins. Through advertisements and posters in libraries and through interviews in magazines and TV she came in contact with well over two hundred adult twins who had lost their twin .   Both from her own experience and as a psycho therapist she found it strange  that here at that time  apparently had never been done research in the problems around losing a twin, knowing from her own experience and from a professional point of view that the loss often has very deep consequences for the bereaved.

 Three main categories  
The result showed that you can divide the loss in categories  
- One , those who lost their twin during or just after their birth.  They have just to acknowledge the fact that they were born a twin.  They have no photographs, no memories and they just know that their twin ought to be with them.  Often such twins have to live not only with their own notion of a loss, but also with their parents' grief.  But in my time as a psycho therapist I have experienced that these early losses are extremely deep, because the small child does not possess the faculty of talking about.  Thus we cannot with any certainty say what it is that has created the memory of the deceased twin. Had they now not known, would they then have felt anything ?

The classical example from research  is the five-to-six year old girl, who always asked her mother to buy "two of each".  One day the irritated mother exclaimed "that's just because you're a twin !" The little girl had never been told directly that she had had a sister.  But grown-ups often talk in front of children without realising that they may absorb things, - so when the girl ask for "two-of-each" is it then because the small child try to express, "There're still two of us" - or is it because she, in her mother's voice, has sensed this terrible loss - or perhaps have heard the mother say "Oh, now I have just one" ?

- Those  who have lost their twin in childhood often have photos and other memories.  They can tell about a person, they themselves remember and who they had  some relation to, even if they have been very small.  

-They who lose their twin as grown-ups experience the loss as something which they can well understand.  But among people I have interviewed there was a 92-year old  who took it for granted that, as they were born together, they would also die together.

 Those who have lost their twin owing to traumatic circumstances appear to have more in common;   and finally there are indeed also similar traits among those who have lost a sister or a brother.  

Relief and Guilt

In the category, which described their loss as "serious" there was significantly more identical twins than twins of the same sex, just as there were many of them who had lost their twin through accidents or suicide. Often this group described the ensuing feeling as  nervous breakdowns or psychosomatic illnesses. Also, many of them had  had matrimonial problems.  

In spite of the fact that the most frequent and totally dominant feeling was deep sorrow and experiencing a unique loss, some twins never-the-less expressed their strong need for being distinguished, and they felt liberated in that they no longer always were termed as "the boys".  

Joan Woodward sums up: - This feeling of relief was even more apparent at those whose twin had suffered before death, or was handicapped, or in other ways exerted to strong pressure.

 In order to be able to define yourself in relation to the other one, it often happens that twins take upon themselves different roles.  Several expressed that it was, as if  they took upon themselves some capacities or characteristics from the deceased.  The 'quiet' twin turned into looking like the 'lively' one.   Possibly because all of a sudden there was more space for the survivor to develop this characteristic, but in addition some expressed that they felt they had part of the dead one's soul in himself. 

The reactions of the parents were commented by practically all of those twins who had lost their twin at birth or through childhood. Comments were divided into two very distinctly different directions. - One category expressed 'over protection'; this apparently affected girls more so than it did boys.  - 'I got stuck, as 'the small one'. Often I became ill, was sent to a private school, and I never really caught up'.

The opposite attitude was rejection, sometimes total :- worst were the cases where the surviving twin felt that the parents reproached him/her the other twin's death - or  when there was the feeling that the parents would rather that it was he/her that had died.  

Among Jane Woodward's observations: - One twin was told directly, 'you crushed your twin....' - another said she “was a murderer in her mothers eyes” . A small number of twins said, however, that their parents genuinely felt happy that there was 'just one' - and those twins felt themselves 'chosen'.  None of these described their loss as 'serious.'  
Some twins felt strong guilt being the survivor and they felt they ought to have done more to help the other twin survive.  Some said that the rest of their lives they had endeavoured 'to behave' in order to soften their mother's feeling of loss.  
Those who described their loss as 'less tough' talked about various factors that had helped to soften their loss.   Some had lived  a lonely life and this was often the case for identical twins' brothers or sisters, having lived on each their continent  
Many said that strong belief and different convictions had helped them on. Several gave vivid accounts of 'having met' the deceased, who again had encouraged them to live on - and these twins were in a special way convinced that they would meet their twin brother or sister again, once their own life ended, says Joan Woodward, who intimates that she herself has a feeling of nearness, especially now, that she has grown older.

 Loss before birth  
The research further revealed that there seems to be proof that a number of  twins in one way or the other perceived the existence of the other twin and was under the influence hereof, even if the other twin had died during pregnancy - and even if they had not been told officially that they were 'a surviving twin'.  
This is a controversial subject among psychologists, because everyone recognises that the physical presence is sensed by both individuals, but not all recognise that the psychic memory does exist with unborns, not to speak of measuring this after birth.  
Most psychologists are of the opinion that a twin, having lost his co-twin during pregnancy can only at a later stage be influenced by learning that he/she was destined to become a twin.  

Joan Woodward is of a different opinion:  -I believe that two people, who have once shared the very smallest place a human being can ever share with anyone else, may very well have a awareness of the other person's existence - and that this awareness does not come exclusively from its surroundings.  
Some of those, whom I have interviewed, spontaneously said, that once they had found out that they were a twin, a lot of pieces in the puzzle fell into place. Suddenly they fully understood their feeling of loneliness, of   'someone missing' and the enormous void, they had felt in the past without knowing why.  All these feelings suddenly made sense.   Therefore, personally I try to be open minded towards this, even if it goes against the established view.  

The Network
As a last step, before Joan Woodward finally concluded her research, she invited all participants to a meeting. Seventy turned up and founded the network, which is a completely informal set-up.   There is no association with a board etc., and neither is it a therapy group - it is simply a network that exists by virtue of those who share their engagement.

Once every year we invite to a meeting, normally attended by 70 to 80 people. They are divided into three  groups - those who have lost right after birth - those who have lost in childhood, and those who have lost as grown-ups.   These groups are again divided into smaller sections of max. eight persons.   This is the only way in which you may ensure that everyone has a chance to actively participate - and also so that you may preserve the necessary intimacy, which must be there, if people decide that they want to speak up.  Some do not open up - others benefit from listening and detect that others nourish the same feelings.  

My experience tells me that people do not open up more than they are prepared to - others do not open up at all.  On the other hand there is a lot of support within the individual groups, in case you wish to tell - or to cry.  To a large degree it is all about listening to others and thereby find out that they share identical feelings.

 The core of the network is a list of addresses of all members, who have written a few words about the circumstances around the death of their twin. In case you feel like contacting someone who has lost a twin of the approximately same age - or live nearby - or have lost 'the same kind' of twin, you may use this list, but you are not obliged to react.  It is the question of very personal feelings being involved, so no-one could nor should assume responsibility for some-one else.   
On the other hand a lonely bereawed twin needs support from other berewed twins.  This loss is something that will last for the rest of your life and there will be moments, when it will feel tougher than at other times, but you will learn to live with it. The result is that a number of smaller, geographically based, groups have been founded and are meeting privately.  

- In my experience psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists do not generally recognise that a twin's loss of a co-twin does leave deep marks, regardless of when in life it happens; - this perhaps because twins are only noticed when they are seen together.  But precisely because twins feel so close they do need extra assistance in life to get over the loss of 'their other half'.

Therefore we have simply made a list of psychologists and therapists who understand and acknowledge this,  and we try to refer to them, when anyone in the network needs professional help.  I do hope that the more the network grows, the more will the sincerity of this loss become understood; - not just because it will help those who suffer from the loss, but because it will enable the surviving twins to feel better with themselves - and feel that also they have a place in the world as those individuals they really are.

 As my interview is coming to an end Joan Woodward shows me a typed poem on a slightly crumbled sheet of paper.   I sense that not many have had the privilege to read this poem, written in '89.   It describes a visit to a churchyard, where the poet, Joan herself, visits the grave, where her sister is buried.   She has not visited the grave for a long time and finds that someone has torn away the blackbird that used to sit on a small birdsbath.

Left was only the bird's small feet, which she removes - and now she is wearing them together with a stone tear, presented to her by a friend.  In this way she is always feeling near to her sister, just as the sister is near to Joan's heart.


 Joan Woodward has written The Lone Twin, Understanding Twin Bereavement and  Loss,  ISBN 1-85343-374-8.  Free Association Books 1998.

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