The triplets were born at 29 weeks gestation, at about 2-1/2 lbs., 2 lbs. and 2 lbs. respectively. At ten days old, the eldest and largest succumbed to complications due to his prematurity. The parents were, naturally, devastated and the father asked me, “Do we still have triplets?” Without even hesitating, I answered, “Yes, your babies remain as they were conceived and you are still the parents of triplets. Nothing can change that. The difference is you have two on Earth and one in Heaven.” This makes perfect sense to me.
To call these precious babies “twins”, from this point forward, is not correct for a couple of reasons: 1) three babies were conceived and three babies were born. To call them “twins” denies the short life of a precious, much loved and wanted child, and 2) the simple truth is the two living siblings are surviving triplets and not twins at all!
The question, “Do we still have twins (triplets? quadruplets? multiples?)” is one of the most common questions from parents who have lost one or more of their multiple birth babies. Those working with multiples and their families or whom are bereaved parents who have conceived multiples and lost one or more, have no difficulty in understanding that surviving children remain twins, triplets, quadruplets or quintuplets. Making others understand such a concept, can be an enormous challenge. Sadly, some of the most painful denials come from family members.
One mother who delivered premature twins and one succumbed some 10 hours later due to birth anomalies, tearfully explained that her mother-in-law never mentions their deceased daughter. Her mother-in-law did not attend her granddaughter’s funeral and, four years later, continues to celebrate the birthday of her “’singleton’ granddaughter.” In addition, this same mother received a card from a co-worker reading “Congratulations on the Birth of your Daughter” even though her co-worker was fully aware she had been carrying twins.
This mother was inconsolable as she recounted her story. These are enormous hurdles for any parent to face: their grief has not been recognized; their daughter’s life has not been recognized or acknowledged, and Mom has not been given “permission” to grieve by either her mother-in-law or co-worker. She remains confused as well as very hurt and angry that her twin daughter’s life, albeit a short one, is completely denied. Mom would love nothing more than to talk about the loss of her child and the future that would have unfolded. While she and her husband feel that they are the parents of twins, others do not understand or share the same point of view and no doubt due to their own inadequate feelings around death, especially that of a child, choose to ignore the loss and celebrate the life of a “singleton child.”
This kind of situation is a very difficult for any family to have to deal with and, unfortunately, not all that uncommon for parents with surviving multiples. Not only is the birth and short life of their child (even if only in utero) denied, but the parents are not provided a safe place to share their sorrow in surroundings with people who understand and care about them. These parents are not “permitted” to acknowledge that they lost a child as well as a unique parenting experience, nor that their surviving child(ren) has lost a unique sibling relationship. The message given to many such bereaved families is that they must “carry on.” Research has also shown that in such situations, parents suffer compicated and prolonged grief when their loss is unrecognized by the people closest to them (Patricia Swanson, et al.).
Children are not interchangeable. Each and every child is important, no matter how short their stay with us. Hopes, joy, dreams, love and future planning are tied up in awaiting the birth of a child and dramatically affected when those dreams are brutally cut short. Parents with surviving multiples have the burden of extreme feelings, both at the same time: Joy at the birth of their child and Despair at the death of their child.
Whether or not parents wish to divulge their personal history will depend upon the situation they are in. With extended family or good friends, they may be open about the loss of their baby(ies). With strangers at the Mall, the parents of two surviving triplets may choose to just let comments pass, “Oh, how wonderful. You have twins!”, or even, the very painful comment “Be thankful you didn’t have triplets.” Which ever way you choose to handle the situation is the right way.
There is no doubt in my mind that the above mentioned family still has triplets, two with them here on Earth and one in Heaven.
Many thanks to Dr. Beth Pector for her feedback and input on this article.