Dear Doula -
My four-year-old son pretends he has a brother and sometimes asks me to give him an older brother. He doesn’t know that he had a twin. My other son was injured at birth and died, but I don’t want my son’s life to be defined by that sadness. My husband and I agreed we’d never tell him he had a twin, but now my husband has changed his mind and wants to tell him. I don’t think we should - I think my husband is just feeling guilty. What should we do - tell him or not?
Sincerely, Mom To One Son
Dear Mom To One Son,
I am so very sorry to hear about your family’s loss. I cannot imagine the pain of that wound and am sending you healing and peace.
That being said, it might be best to hold off on reading my response to you if you’re feeling particularly sensitive at the moment.
Toddlers are small, I get it. We instinctively want to protect them from all bad things as their parents. Unfortunately, we can’t totally control the world. That means that sooner than we’d like, our little innocent children are going to learn about life’s darker side. It may be our job to help protect them - or maybe it’s our job to guide them.
Your grief is palpable. My children are my pride and joy; losing one of them for any reason would probably break me. You’ve survived something unbelievably painful while parenting a tiny baby into toddlerhood. Bravo, mama! Please don’t be offended when I say this: I think your grief is clouding your judgment.
Far be it from me to tell someone how to grieve! Everyone feels differently and responds uniquely and I can’t say there’s really a “wrong” way to grieve.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t say your particular process gives me pause. Your toddler is their own person, not a player in a traumatic event that happened to you. If they are indicating they feel a sense of loss or that someone is missing from their life, this might be a sign of readiness.
Did you know that four-year-olds hit a developmental milestone that means they can thereafter understand the concept of death? No, really! They understand the finality of death, its permanence, and that it happens to everyone. It’s inevitable that they begin asking difficult questions around this age.
Your son has some uniquely difficult questions to ask. Twins, as I’m sure you know, share an intimate bond that science says stems from sharing the same womb. If your son says he is missing a brother, it’s possible he might be feeling this very phenomenon and doesn’t yet have the words to describe it. If this is the case, your refusal to acknowledge his twin could be hindering his own grieving process.
Oh, Mom To One Son. My heart breaks for you. I cannot imagine how difficult the last four years have been. You lived through something incomprehensibly painful - but you survived. You are here, on the other side, and it’s so important that you keep going. Part of that forward motion is going to be watching your living child grow up without their twin. I’m so sorry.
That loss, I’m sure, made you feel like you had no control. It’s an awful feeling and I hate to remind you of it, but you don’t. Your parents or friends might let the truth about your son’s twin slip one day. Perhaps your son will find a birth certificate or death certificate and start asking questions himself. Your child’s death is a fact. No matter how much you may want to try to ignore it, you can’t suppress it forever. You can’t control that fact out of existence for you or for your living son.
We must learn to live with the things we cannot change. You are learning how to be a mom to a child that passed away. Your son is going to learn how to mourn for his lost twin. Both of you will grow and change during this learning phase. The openness with which you handle this tragedy will be an example for your child during their most formative years. If you choose wisely, you and your son can grow together through shared grief and longing.
No one wants to tell their child that bad things can happen - or even worse, that they have. But when we can’t avoid the tragedy, we have to teach our children how to face it head-on by doing exactly that ourselves. My love to you, Mom To One. I hope you can find the fortitude to share this truth with your son before he finds out elsewhere.
MORE DEAR DOULA