The loss of a twin

Serena Allott / 02 August 2016

We look at how the loss of a twin can affect the surviving twin, and how the Lone Twin Network can help people come to terms with such a devastating bereavement.



Few people understand the emotional agonies suffered by twins when one of them dies – even before birth. 

A support group has now been set up to help them live with their loss. 

Patricia says she still feels like half a person, even though it’s more than 40 years since her identical twin Joan died at the age of seven. “I think of myself as a twin, I’ve never felt whole,” she says. 

Yet she rarely mentions Joan; even a friend she’d known for 25 years and with whom she was staying when I arrived for the interview, was astonished by the news. “I never knew that, you never told me!” she said. Asked for an explanation, Patricia says, “I’m not denying Joan, I’m protecting her in case someone says something insensitive or dismissive.” 

Simon, 46, would understand this. His twin, James, died when they were two days old but he has always seen himself as a twin, always mourned the relationship he lost. “Try explaining that to a singleton,” he says. “They just don’t get it. Most people’s reaction is, ‘You didn’t know him, how can you miss him?’ But twins always understand.” 

Find out where to get bereavement counselling

Lone Twin Network

This is why the support group Lone Twin Network (LTN) affords such comfort to people like Patricia and Simon. There is no one-upmanship of grief among its members: they all know that the death of a twin – whenever it happens – is like an amputation. In fact, when Joan Woodward, founder of the network, was researching a book, The Lone Twin, she was surprised to find that the group most likely to define their loss as “severe” were those where the twin’s death had occurred before the age of six months. 

Can we “singletons” comprehend this? The wonders of television documentaries allow us to sit in our own homes and, through highly sophisticated cameras, watch twins relating to one another in the womb, but does this lead us to appreciate the bond these babies form? 

In Joan Woodward’s book, Bryony Goode, whose identical twin sister died a few days before their birth, relates: “I even have a strong sense that we lay close together, with her back curled against my stomach. When I get flashes of this image it feels so real. I can ‘feel’ her skin and the warmth of her body and everything is quiet and so peaceful. I often had the feeling that I had something missing the length of my body long before I had these memories.” 

Can a singleton imagine, as Bryony does earlier in this passage, how her unborn infant self may have felt when her sister stopped responding and lay dead by her side? In today’s super-sensitive society, hospitals photograph dead infants, mindful of the fact that the pictures will bring comfort to the bereaved parents later on. But when Simon and James were born this was unheard of. “We have no photos of James, nothing, and that’s a source of great regret to me,” says Simon. “He was buried, against my mother’s wishes, she would rather he had been cremated, but for me having his grave has been helpful. My mother and I used to take a bucket and trowel and go there to ‘tidy it up’; there always had to be that excuse. Since I joined the Lone Twin Network eight years ago that’s changed, now we feel able to go there just to have a good cry.” (Like Patricia, he hopes that when he dies, some of his ashes will be buried with his twin.) 

The LTN changed the way Simon relates to James. He grew up feeling special. “There were a couple of sets of twins at my school and I remember thinking, ‘I’m like them and we’re quite rare.’” And, of course, in his imagination his relationship with James was very special: “I fantasised that we would go through life as best buddies, but I don’t have to do that any more. Now I don’t think of him every day but he’s there, sitting on my shoulder in a comforting, background way.” 

Coming to terms with guilt

He has also come to terms with his underlying feelings of guilt: he had survived, therefore he must live James’s life as well as his own. “It gave me a feeling of restlessness, of dissatisfaction with my lot, of constantly striving to prove myself. And I’ve never been a team player, I’m not much good in groups.” His discovery, through a therapeutic LTN workshop that these feelings are common to lone twins, did much to assuage them. 

Patricia, another loner, would say the same. When she reached middle age she had a successful career in management but a poor track record with relationships. “The first question I asked at my first LTN workshop was, ‘Does anyone here have trouble forming relationships?’ and everyone in my group said ‘you bet’. One woman had been married three times. Just knowing that took such a huge burden off my shoulders. I felt normal. It didn’t make me behave differently but at least it helped me to understand why I continually pushed people away for fear of them getting too close and why I had such high expectations of relationships. I’m continually searching for something that doesn’t exist.” 

The bond between twins

Like Simon, Patricia’s view of her relationship with Joan is idealised. They used to switch the different coloured ribbons that were supposed to distinguish between them and collapse with laughter when their mother chided one for the other’s misdemeanours. When they were separated at school their tantrums were such that they were allowed back together. 

Patricia recalls that either she or Joan needed a minor eye operation and the doctor refused to operate immediately because he believed the other twin would will herself into the same condition – which in due course she did. “Joan was the dominant one, she always decided what we’d wear, what we’d play, she looked after me,” says Patricia. Joan died after a severe asthma attack. “The hospital wouldn’t let me in to see her and I’ve spent a lifetime regretting that I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t go to the funeral, I was sent next door and I didn’t even know it was happening.” 

The death of Joan effectively brought Patricia’s childhood to an end. “I became a recluse. For a couple of years I wouldn’t or couldn’t talk to anybody. My parents tried to get me to play with other children but I wasn’t interested, they couldn’t play like Joan did. I feel cheated of the relationship we should have had.” Joy, who is 60, feels cheated too. Her twin Roy (“You can’t say Mum didn’t have a sense of humour, we were Roy Barry and Joy Beryl – ‘Roy Boy’ and ‘Joy Bell’”) died of cancer when they were 44. 

“I still feel very bitter that he hasn’t been around to see his children grown and settled, and his grandchildren. He should have been here to celebrate our 50th and 60th birthdays.” (Joan Woodward’s book quotes a woman in her seventies whose identical sister died when they were in their forties: “It was decreed by my mother – at the funeral service – that January 7 would no longer be acknowledged as the twins’ birthday, as there were no longer twins! The date therefore was of no consequence and would no longer be recognised as a birthday.) 

Joy’s mother used to dress her twins in matching clothes but – as is usual – they each had their role to play. Roy was the scientific one, Joy was artistic; she was bold where he was shy. From their mid-teens Joy and Roy had been mates; her girlfriends almost considered him “one of the girls”. “The older we got the closer we became, I could tell him anything; if I was really fed up I could talk to him, he was part of me,” Joy says. 

When she was pregnant with her first child he had morning sickness; when she went into labour he was admitted to hospital with suspected appendicitis. “I could tell when he was going to phone, and I always knew when he wasn’t feeling well, even if we weren’t together.” 

On the day he died the hospital had decided to discharge him: no more could be done and they needed his bed. “I’d gone to the Red Cross to pick up a commode for him when suddenly I felt cold and the hairs on my arms stood on end. I said to the woman I was talking to, ‘I won’t be needing this, he’s gone.’” He left her a locket which she never wears: “It’s too precious, I’m afraid I might lose it,” she says. “We were both pretty sensitive, but I didn’t realise till the end how strong he was. I just went to pieces when he died. I think that had quite a lot to do with the breakdown of my marriage; my husband kept saying I had to pull myself together but it was like I’d had an arm severed. I lost interest in everything and didn’t want to go out and eventually he met someone else.” 

For several years Joy felt that as cancer had claimed Roy it would take her too. “Whenever I had a pain I’d think ‘that’s it, I’m going to die’ and in fact the doctor did say I should have a chest X-ray.” This sort of fear is common among surviving twins, although when I put this to Ruby, 85, whose twin sister Peggy died of cancer when she was 79, she dismisses it briskly. “I’m me,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d get it too.” 

Ruby claims that Peggy was the dominant twin, but admits that – answering a research questionnaire, Peggy said she was. Peggy was sensible and practical, she looked after her “little” twin sister and was always one step ahead. “Even when we were small she never stopped talking. I’m only beginning to realise now that I can get a word in edgeways and she died six years ago, can you believe that?” She still feels bereft, particularly when anything important, anything she would once have shared with Peggy, happens. Ruby and Peggy had telepathic moments, sending each other the same birthday present, buying the same dress. 

But perhaps because Peggy lived a natural life span, Ruby can look realistically at their relationship. They didn’t – as Simon and Patricia have fancied – lead parallel lives. Peggy hated school, Ruby loved it; aged 14 they both sat for art school exams and Ruby passed while Peggy didn’t (“I don’t think she ever forgave me for that”). Shortly after that Peggy asked their father if she could leave school and take on their late mother’s role. “She did it beautifully, whereas I couldn’t cook at all when I got married.” 

After the war they both moved, with their husbands and their babies, into their father’s house, which is still Ruby’s home. “We battled like all siblings battle and there was quite a lot of competition about whose baby could stand first, that sort of thing. I don’t think she ever forgave me the fact that my first grandchildren were twin girls.” 

Nevertheless, they were always close. “She was the same as me but different, we belonged.” In Ruby’s sitting room there is a small photograph of her twin granddaughters tucked into a larger picture of Ruby and Peggy with their husbands Ron and Gordon all posing together, with the women in very similar dresses. It’s one of the first things you notice when you walk into the house and it immediately shrieks “twins”. 

Simon and Patricia have nothing like that, but since they joined Lone Twin Network both have created mementos for their twins: Patricia’s is a poem that she wrote for Joan, Simon’s a eucalyptus tree in the garden. Both light church candles for their twins, especially when abroad. “I’ve lit them in all sorts of obscure places like a monastery halfway up a mountain in Greece, it makes me feel she’s visited those places too,” says Patricia. 

Simon also lit a special candle on his 40th birthday, in a corner of the room in which he was hosting a grand dinner for his friends. “Unlike lots of lone twins I’d never found my birthday particularly difficult, but my 40th completely overwhelmed me.” He sought help from others at Lone Twin Network and one woman told him she had laid a place for her twin at her 40th birthday. “The candle was a powerful thing for me. One friend asked, almost critically, why it was there, and I felt able to say ‘I don’t care what you think, it’s there for me, not you.’” 

The Lone Twin, Understanding Twin Bereavement and Loss by Joan Woodward, is published by Free Association Books.

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