By Linda Pountney —
I was taken captive by life and death at the age of twenty-one.
My identical twin sister Paula and I faced life together for twenty-one years. We never imagined life without the other. As twins, we had an unspoken pact to care for one another. When she died suddenly in a small plane crash, I questioned who I was in the world without her. Could I even function in life without my twin?
Our losses are as unique and personal as our love. All bereavement experiences are different. For me, grieving for my sister came many years after she died. This does not negate the importance of who she was in my life.
Sibling loss can be overlooked at times. Left behind are a silent group of survivors – sisters and brothers who don’t feel entitled to their grief or are not capable of expressing it. Postponing grief can be the result. Children and teens are especially vulnerable, and post-traumatic stress syndrome can present a roadblock in their healing.
I am a veteran of loss. All of my siblings died when I was in my twenties. We all mourn in our own way and in our own time; each journey is unique. And mine is a perfect example of that.
A drunk driver killed my brother Peter. He was my protector, my all-knowing older brother. I looked up to him and we formed a close connection after my sister died. My newborn son had just met my cool older brother and instantly his uncle was removed from his life forever.
My brother’s death came eight years after I experienced the death of my identical twin Paula. The problem is I didn’t really experience the death of my twin at the time it happened. I cannot stress this enough; I did not cry and I did not mourn for my sister at the innocent, yet invincible age of twenty-one.
My two siblings both died in sudden accidents, of a traumatic nature. A decade later, my mother and father died from cancer. My entire family of origin was taken prematurely. I grieved for my parents and for my brother directly after theirs deaths. This was not the case when my twin sister died.
Neither the support nor the tools to grieve were available to me at the time of my sister’s death. A support group was not an option in the early 1970s. I was frozen in my expression of grief. My feelings of pain and sorrow were something I was not capable of owning. I ran away from the pain, only to have this delayed grief resurface years later. As I grieved for my brother, I simultaneously grieved for my twin sister.
Mourning two people at the same time proved a challenge, especially when one died many years earlier. My world became my grief, consuming most of my energy for a time. Its hold was relentless; I had no choice but to feel the stifled pain and sorrow from the loss of my twin sister. I questioned my sanity as I grieved for a death that happened eight years earlier. Still deep in grief for my brother, this newly surfacing expression of grief for my sister took hold of me with unyielding strength. These feelings appeared from another time in my life; it was as though Paula’s plane crashed yesterday.
A decade later, my parents died of cancer, one right after the other. As my last link to my sister and brother, their death took on new meaning. With each new loss, the delayed onset of grief for my twin sister surfaced. Grief will lay dormant, affecting your emotional and physical well-being. Once exposed, it cries out to be heard. My unfinished grief was prompted by the death of my brother, mother and ultimately my father. With caution I shared my inner world with only a selected few.
It could have been a survival mechanism or self preservation instinct that prevented me from emotionally facing my sister’s death at the age of twenty-one. Delaying my grief could have been a positive thing. I was not prepared to deal with the magnitude of the loss of my twin. What I do know is that delaying the grieving process is more common than we think. And I had absolutely no conscious choice in the matter.
Looking back, I can define traumatic moments that caused me to further repress my feelings of grief. My sister died in a head-on collision into the ocean. The physical mutilation, along with the sudden and violent nature of the airplane crash contributed to my overload. Waiting for her body to wash up and chosen to be the one to sign for my twin’s coffin at the airport proved to be traumatic for me.
I was not given permission to grieve as a mere sibling. Other relationships were deemed more important. I was counseled by more than one person to “take care of your mother.” These well-meaning people were just showing concern for my parents as they faced the tragic loss of their child. But they unknowingly took away my right to grieve. My role model, my older brother, did not show his sorrow and was probably protecting me by never mentioning my twin again. I will never know the impact this loss had on him.
Communication is essential for a healthy bereavement experience. Isolation comes with grieving a devastating loss. Telling your story, sharing with others in support group settings, and talking about your loved one is part of the healing process. I learned this the hard way.
Retrospectively there were signs, manifestations of a pain not yet felt in my life. When I was finally ready to mourn, everyone of my family members had died. I was alone; my isolation was painfully magnified. Mine was a hidden grief. I feared others would not understand. A safe environment is crucial to opening your heart to unfinished grief.
These were turning points in my avoidance of grief. I walked the road solo until I found a support group for twinless twins www.twinlesstwins.org. Other twins who had experienced the death of their twin gave validation to what I was feeling. During meetings, I saw my emotions mirrored in other twins. With this support came understanding. I moved forward in my expression of grief.
Sibling loss is misunderstood. Freedom to grieve may not exist for many siblings. And obviously, freedom to grieve can come many years after a death occurs. A brother or sister’s pain can be easily buried; it is not expected or deemed necessary. This can slow healing or delay it completely.
Involved with a Hospice program, I learned to give myself permission to grief for my sister. To express these feelings buried in time was liberating. Moving toward the pain, not running away from it, was the key. Being present to experience the pain without judging myself was of great importance. Unmasked or exposed years later, by a significant event or another loss, unfinished grief needs to be processed.
It has been a healing journey like no other. Being able to work through my grief and reach out to help others is the reward. Reaching out to another grieving person can make a difference in their journey and our own. Healing comes in wondrous ways.
Linda Pountney is Vice President of Twinless Twins Support Group International http://twinlesstwins.org offering support for twins and other multiples who have lost their twin due to death or estrangement.