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Talking to Siblings and Surviving Twins and Triplets

Every family will handle things differently and there is no right or wrong way to talk to your children. It is important to do what feels right for your family and just do your best to feel your way through this difficult journey. I am not an expert by any means but I hope that you might find some of this blog helpful…

Our eldest, Olly, was 14 months when our twins, Rory and Daniel died. He was so young and I worried a lot about the impact it would all have on him - the knowledge of what happened and our outward grief. It was hard to know how to talk to anyone about what had happened, let alone a one year old. 

I had worked previously as an occupational therapist in a palliative care setting, and had remembered that in difficult circumstances around a parent dying and leaving young children, that the psychologists and other experts had always recommended being open and honest with children about what was happening - but importantly in an age appropriate way, using simple and clear and honest language. So we adopted that same approach with Olly, and with our two rainbow babies later on. 

So, even though he was so young, I gently mentioned the twins from the beginning. Just every now and again, or if the moment arose. If any of my children ever asked me questions, I would try and give them an honest, but gentle answer. That is still the case now, twelve years on.

In the early days I kept it very simple… “Rory died in mummy's tummy and Daniel died a day after he was born” or “the twins didn’t grow big enough and were born too early and sadly they died” or “sometimes mummy feels a bit sad because she misses the twins, but your cuddles make me feel so much better”. 

I also took Olly to visit their grave with me fairly regularly over the years, so that was often where he first mentioned them or asked questions. I always tried to make it a ‘positive’ experience, leaving flowers, messages or he would help me plant up the pots there. I still do that with all the boys from time to time now. They are so familiar with it as a place now, that it doesn’t feel out of the ordinary for them. It doesn’t have to be a grave, it can be anywhere or anything, but I think for young children, having something tangible, like a place or an object/s, is helpful for them. It helps to be able to explain things to younger children. You can say things like “we miss the twins (or we miss your twin brother/sister) and we like to remember them which is why we have a photo on the wall/a tree in the garden/a special place to visit where we can think about them”.

It did help me to be able to explain my sad moments as well, as in the early days particularly, I found I was sometimes upset in front of Olly… I could say something like “mummy is crying because she is feeling a bit sad about Rory and Daniel, but it's ok to cry when we feel sad”.

In those early years, Olly didn’t mention the twins too much, and if he did, it was always quite factual or matter of fact. It never actually seemed to be something he felt particularly sad about, I am not sure he has ever cried about it, but he has always felt able to tell people he had twin brothers who died. I think we as adults often worry more about how our surviving twin or triplets or siblings will cope, but their grief is different from ours and often less emotional whilst they are young. 

I just want to add here that as I don’t have a surviving twin or triplet, I don’t personally have experience of how this may change as they get older. I have however had many conversations with families that do, people I have supported over the years, and there are many different ways of managing this as the surviving twin/triplet gets older.

When he was really little, Olly used to mix up Devon (where we visited friends) and Heaven… it would make me smile. Although it is sometimes hard to hear the kids talk about the twins, as it can catch me unawares, I think it has actually helped me with my own grief over the years too. I also think it has helped my husband learn to talk about the twins too… something he found extremely difficult for a long time. The children’s innocence and simplicity in how they talked about what had happened, and actually their lack of emotion in doing so, helped Tim know how to talk about the twins and made it easier for him to do so. 

As Olly has got older, Jack and Archie (my rainbow babies) have heard him talk openly and easily about the twins. They don’t mention them a huge amount but when they do, it is not with sadness, more often with a sense of pride, just part of their family and life story - all they've ever known. Jack and Archie know that I sometimes refer to them as my rainbow babies, as they were born after the twins died. We have some interesting conversations as Jack sometimes says things like “I wouldn’t have been born if Rory and Daniel had lived”. I am always honest and acknowledge that that might be the case, but then I always follow it up with how incredibly special he is to me, how healing and joyful it was when he was born, not just for me but for all the family. Jack recently found out that a girl in his class is also a rainbow baby and the two of them found a special bond in that shared experience and knowledge. Peer to peer support in that sense, is really important to them too as they get older. 

Even just the other day, my youngest, Archie who is 7, from nowhere asked to see a picture of the twins. He happened to be standing under a frame in our bedroom that has four little photos of the twins in it. But I am not sure that Archie had ever realised that it was them and not one of my living children. We had a look and he asked a few questions. I just gave him some simple honest answers. He was fine and a minute or two later, was back to asking if he could go on the Nintendo Switch!

A proud mummy moment I had a couple of years ago, was when Olly’s science teacher came up to me at school. His class had been learning about how babies grow in the womb, and she said that in the context of a class discussion Olly had told them about his twin brothers and how they had died. The teacher said that she was bowled over by his openness, maturity and empathy. It had sparked a mature and sensitive discussion amongst the class and she was really impressed. I think the reality is that children actually manage their grief better than we do at times! 

One silver lining to come from such loss and sadness, is that our survivors and living children will have an ability to talk openly about difficult subjects and be compassionate and sensitive in doing so. It is a real gift. 

One final thing to add, is that soon after the twins died, a lovely friend of mine sent me two matching prints - one of each of the twins names in full. I chose to put these up in my kitchen and so over the years, when friends and family have visited, it has always been a gentle reminder that the twins are part of our family and we are happy for others to acknowledge them. The people that have always felt comfortable and able to ask me about the prints are other children that come into the house. The boys' friends, or family friends, and I love that they feel able to ask about the twins. 

There is so much more I could say. It is hard to narrow it down. Not only learning to live with our own grief, but worrying about that of our other children’s too, is extremely difficult. Be kind to yourself and go slowly and gently. 

We are always here at Footprints to help guide you and talk things through with you if you would like. The support we offer, being able to talk to peers, other families with similar lived experience, is so helpful when it comes to talking to siblings and/or surviving twins and triplets. Please do get in touch if you would like to know more.

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