When a multiple birth parent dies…

I’ve been working with bereaved multiple birth families for many years now and the focus of that support has been about the babies and children. However, two other areas have emerged in the past couple of years: the grief of survivors of a multiple birth situation and, more recently, when a multiple birth parent dies. While any pregnancy can present with difficulties for the mother, multiple birth pregnancies can present with additional risks (see my article Possible Risks to the Mother of a Multiple Birth Pregnancy on this site).

The birth of a child is initially disruptive to all families as they (the parents and baby) must achieve a balance and routine. Add twins or triplets (or more) to the situation and both balance and a routine take longer to work out as each family member is in a steep learning curve. Add the loss of a parent and the situation takes one’s breath away!

The surviving parent, whether Mom or Dad, has to attend to the needs of two or more newborns, make funeral arrangements for their beloved spouse, perhaps attend to other children in the family, maybe deal with work outside the home, deal with their spouse’s grieving parents and make some room to grieve the loss of their partner. Talk about trying to find balance!

Some thoughts come to mind when Mom dies as a result of her multiple birth pregnancy…

  • When a planned pregnancy has gone terribly wrong and Mom has died while the children have survived, the initial feelings are of numbness, shock, denial, “this can’t be happening”, “what am I (‘we’) going to do? How will we cope?” are normal. One can expect a roller coaster of emotions. In addition, it is going to be difficult to push aside grief feelings in order to take care of twins or more.
  • What if I feel that my wife has died and it is the babies’ fault? What if I feel that I can’t love them as a result? These are normal feelings and a natural consequence to such a dire situation where children survive while the parent does not. Over time, the surviving parent will come to love their babies, while still mourning for and loving their wife, the babies’ mother. The mother’s death may have occurred because of her pregnancy, but the babies’ aren’t to blame. Her death isn’t anyone’s fault but rather a painful and very unfair occurrence.
  • Fathers don’t always feel terribly comfortable sitting in a bereavment support circle if they are the only males present. It may be more prudent to connect with another widowed father. Check out a religious affiliation, ask your doctor, or your local Bereaved Families Chapter. Some bereaved fathers have reported that time spent in a social setting rather than a bereaved setting worked better for them and made it easier for them to talk about their feelings. Some social settings to consider are on the golf course, breakfast out, perhaps a picnic with the kids. Use your immagination for what might work for you…and for when either parent dies…
  • Babies need to nurtured, cooed at, smiled at, held, cradled, rocked, fed, bathed and changed. Through these actions, babies learn to trust those who are looking after them and bonding occurs. None of these things may initially be possible as the surviving parent is working through their grief. The surviving parent may experience a need to ask someone else to provide some of the nurturing care of the children for at least a part of the time. The surviving parent may ask the grandparents, other family members or friends to help out. It is important in this circumstance for the parent to stay involved in some part of the babies’ daily care. Sometimes holding a wee baby enables us to grieve, as their small bodies are cradled in our arms or we hold them during a feed. For some, knowing that we are needed can be helpful.
  • Grieving parents need to be kind to themselves. They have received an enormous shock. It will take time, gentleness, support from family and friends to even begin to feel normal again. Expect setbacks. Grief is a journey, not a destination.
  • Grieving parents should not set huge goals for themselves. One step at a time is the best approach: “I just need to feed them this meal; I just need to eat; I just need to rest; I just need to sleep.”
  • The surviving parent should accept all the help they can get. They need reliable, comforting people around them. They may need to defer some elements of the funeral arrangements or babies’ care to someone else.
  • The grieving parent should not be afraid to speak up if they need something. People want to help but they may not know how or what to offer. The parent might ask someone to bathe a baby, take them for a walk, play with them or make the parent a cup of tea, if that is what will help. Asking someone to do the grass cutting or snow shoveling can mean a great deal to a parent faced with the duress of grieving and caring for their children at the same time.
  • If feelings of grief are overwhelming, it is appropriate to seek professional help and grieving parents may benefit enormously from an appropriate professional. Their doctor can either assist directly or provide a referral to a professional grief counselor. Grief is not the same as clinical depression, however, even if it feels incredibly painful. It is a normal human emotion and the goal is to mourn rather than stifle feelings. Surviving parents faced with the demands of grieving and simultaneous child care may really only grieve when all the work is done and the children are asleep. In other words, grieving may occur in spurts rather than continuously because of the unique life situation in which the loss has occurred.
  • The grieving parent may find it very helpful to have a safe place to speak about their feelings. They may wish to join a bereavement support group in their community. Sometimes, however, grieving people do best when they mourn on their own in a private space. Indeed, there is no formula for mourning that fits everyone.
  • The surviving parent should go forward slowly. They should expect setbacks and realize that adjustment will resemble a roller coaster more than a steady incline. Bursts of sorrow will occur, sometimes at very unexpected moments. That’s normal. The surviving parent must take it one day or hour at a time.Over time, there are other things to consider for the surviving spouse ..
  • It is advisable not to clear out their partner’s clothing or personal items in a hurry. Doing so will not relieve the pain and may, in the long run, cause more grief as cherished memorabilia is donated or given away in haste.
  • Leaving out photos of the lost parent and speaking to the children about them is very important for helping children process the grief of a parent they did not know. Relating how much both parents looked forward to the children’s births, how each considered names for them, how much the parents both looked forward to being a family is important for the children to hear. Such communication and openness about the lost parent helps children fill in gaps in their own identity and promotes self development. It will make it less likely that they will feel guilty for their parent’s death.
  • Expect your children to ask all sorts of questions regarding the death of their parent. If the surviving parent doesn’t feel capable of answering them (example: Why did Mommy die?), the parent can respond that they will think about it and answer the child later. Counselors or bereavement groups can provide assistance on how to answer difficult, pointed questions from children. A medically accurate answer, using appropriate words for the age of the child, could also be a good approach. Even when there are more than one survivor of the multiple birth, such questions are usually posed by one child at a time. Of course, the same question may be posed by another in the future or by the same child who has a need to hear the same answer once again.
  • The goal of mourning is to find our way back to life with its joys and challenges. Children who have lost parents in infancy need to laugh and enjoy life as much as any child. It is the surviving parent who must lead the way. It is OK to laugh and to have new possibilities, new experiences.



By Lynda P. Haddon and Arthur S. Leonoff Psychologist/Psychoanalyst/Training Analyst

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