When Death Cuts the Bond of Twins

Having a twin leads to a special type of grief.
The New York Times
March 1, 2007

A Singular Pain: When Death Cuts the Bond of Twins

AFTER her identical twin, Cara, died last year of a drug overdose, life stopped for her, too, Christa Parravani said. She stopped eating. Work served as a bitter, inadequate refuge. For the first time in her life, Ms. Parravani, a photographer, was alone.

“I feel guilty for being alive, like it’s a curious and exceptional thing,” she said. Yet when Ms. Parravani stood up before a group of strangers at a Midtown Manhattan restaurant last December and told them of losing Cara, she felt a sense of kinship, she said. They were all people whose twin siblings had died, and they had come together in a bereavement group called Twinless Twins.

One young woman spoke of losing her sister to breast cancer in their early 30s. Another’s brother died of AIDS. “There’s this sort of void left when one’s twin
dies,” Ms. Parravani, 29, said of Cara’s death. “In the claustrophobia of the relationship, there comes a comfort in some way. It seems unusual to breathe now.”

Those who come into the world with another person may not think about the possibility that their twin might die apart from them. But almost always, one twin dies before another. From that moment, twins say, the uniqueness of life as a twin carries over into the grief they feel.

People who turn to groups like Twinless Twins by definition had close, though often difficult, relationships with their twin siblings. Intimacy may be greater between identical twins than fraternal ones, but both kinds of twins said in one study that the loss of their twin hurts longer, and more intensely, than the loss of nearly anyone else.

When their twin dies, the remaining ones often experience profound survivors’ guilt. They have problems with other intimate relationships. Birthdays bring on mourning, said Dr. Nancy L. Segal, professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton, and director of the Twin Studies Center.

The number of multiple births has risen steadily over the last 40 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which means the particular grief experienced by twins will spread through the lives of many more Americans. In 2004, according to the centers, 3.2 percent of live births were twins, compared with 1.9 percent in 1984.

Those who aren’t twins seem largely unable to appreciate the depth and complexity of twin bereavement, therapists and twins themselves said. “Twins need to reach out to twins who have the same experience so that they can end their isolation,” said Mary R. Morgan, a therapist in New York and an expert in twin bereavement. “What struck me is that although it takes awhile for any group to trust one another, when twinless twins get together in a group, they seem to sense and trust each other immediately, enabling them to move forward in the healing process.”

Research involving twins rarely looks at the relationships between them, Dr. Segal said. Rather, scientists use twins to explore the roles nature and nurture play in a range of health and behavioral phenomena.

Dr. Segal, author of “Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior,” studied identical and fraternal twin children at the University of Chicago and found that identical twins tended to cooperate more with each other and were gentler with each other than fraternal twins were.

Her research into bereavement after the loss of a twin, compared with the loss of other relatives, with the exception of children, indicated that identical twins felt a more powerful and persistent grief than fraternal twins, but that both kinds of twins felt that the loss of their sibling was more severe than any other loss.

Twinless Twins was founded in 1986 by Dr. Raymond W. Brandt, a therapist from Fort Wayne, Ind., who had lost his identical twin decades earlier. (Dr. Brandt died in 2001.) The group has 10 chapters around the country and four in Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada. The group has 400 paid members and 350 registered users of its Web site. Twinless Twins holds regional meetings and an annual national convention where people talk about their twins and their loss. At the national meeting, there are also workshops for spouses and parents of twins.

Telling a roomful of strangers about losing your twin is like going off the high dive, said Michael Caruso, a 58-year-old physical therapist in Highland, Md. In
the summer of 1970, a hit-and-run driver killed Mr. Caruso’s identical twin, Lee, as he walked a motorcycle with a flat tire down a two-lane road on the Jersey Shore. Two years before that, Lee had tried to kill himself.

Mr. Caruso still cannot distinguish himself from his brother in some childhood pictures. He was profoundly disturbed by his brother’s suicidal behavior, and his early death meant they never got to talk about it.

Their family urged him to “suck it up and move on,” Mr. Caruso said. He entered romantic relationships looking for a woman to be as close to him as Lee had been, a common reaction to the yearning for intimacy among those who have lost their twins. After two marriages that failed, therapy and a career helping others in chronic pain, Mr. Caruso went to his first Twinless Twins meeting. Over time, he learned to accept his brother’s loss and that he could not have stopped him from attempting suicide or his eventual death. He met his current wife, Susan Gray, after starting the meetings, and he says that for the first time, he was not needy in a relationship.

“I let go of the fact that I can’t heal someone,” Mr. Caruso said. “I can only offer help.” When Joshua Fleck looks at the grown-ups in Twinless Twins, he sees his own life some day. He is 11 years old and the only child of Caitlin and Ken Fleck of Horsham, Pa. Five years ago, his identical twin, Shayne, died of an inoperable brain tumor. The boys had the same blue blankets. After his brother died, Joshua asked that a piece of Shayne’s blanket be stitched into his and a piece from his sewn into his brother’s and placed in his coffin with him. He still sleeps with that blanket.

A year after his brother’s death, Joshua told his mother that a “big piece of his heart went with Shayne,” Ms. Fleck said. She told him about Twinless Twins. Joshua said he worried about what adults there would think of him, but he found friends at the local chapter and the national meeting. “When I look at Twinless Twins, they all lost their twins but they’re great people,” Joshua said. “They haven’t gotten over it, because you never really get over it. But they have lived their lives to the fullest while still remembering their twin.”

Carolyn Shane, 56, has finally persuaded her family to take her 9-year-old grandniece to Twinless Twins. The little girl lost her twin within days of their birth and Ms. Shane noticed a reticence and sadness for years.

Ms. Shane is the little girl’s special aunt because she lost her twin, too, in different ways, several times. Ms. Shane’s twin brother, Cary Schuman, was born severely brain damaged in their native Illinois. Ms. Shane, who lives in Maplewood, N.J., said she always felt a need to protect her brother. But their parents placed him in an institution when he was 5. From age 10 to 21, Ms. Shane was not taken at all to see her brother. Her father could not cope with his son’s disability, so Cary was never mentioned at home. Cary died of cancer nine years ago. “I always knew I was an ‘us’, but everyone treated me as a ‘me,’ as just one,” Ms. Shane said. Her grief upon her brother’s death was so great, she said, that she felt she was going insane. That feeling abated once she began meeting with others at Twinless Twins. “It’s like we have an unbreakable bond of immediate understanding and empathy,” she said.

Ms. Parravani is now wending her way through the landscape that other twins have traveled. She and Cara went to college together. Cara was the writer, she the photographer. But their shared life was torn apart when Cara was raped, five years before her death.

Cara was deeply troubled that her sister could not fully understand what she had been through, Ms. Parravani said. Ms. Parravani left graduate school for a time to look after Cara, as Cara’s marriage and her emotional health fell apart. She could coax her sister outside only to pose for a series of photographs Christa was assembling of twins in different landscapes.

Her sister began to use heroin, Ms. Parravani said, and she died of an accidental fentanyl overdose. “The hardest part is relearning who I am in the world without her,” she said, sitting in her gallery in Brooklyn, surrounded by pictures of the two of them. “Without her, it’s a long road for me.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Leave a Reply

Website Donated By