The author with her son M in 2019. "The only photos I have with my twins are with my survivor, M, with Nicholas's ashes. This is as close as I've ever come to holding both my twins together," she writes. (Photo: Courtesy of Kate Amstutz Photography)
I was 32 weeks pregnant with identical twin boys when my life changed forever.
During a routine ultrasound, we found out one of our twin boys had died. An appointment two days earlier had confirmed they were both alive. Not only was one baby, Nicholas, no longer living, but the other baby, M, was in serious danger of injury as a result of his brother’s passing. The doctor sent me directly to the hospital so we could monitor M around the clock. I stayed there until my sons were born five long days later ― one so little, fighting for his life, and one so quiet.
The death of any baby is awful, but the unique situation of losing a twin is its own special kind of hell. Not only does living in the extreme of planning for life with a new baby while planning funeral services for another feel like emotional whiplash, but so many of the people we encountered had no idea what to do or what to say to us.
Instead of engaging in a dialogue with us, people avoided us or got uncomfortable when we responded honestly about how many children we have. Some people even said downright cruel things like:
“At least you have two other children.”
“Thank God you have another baby to keep you busy.”
“You can have more kids.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“God must have had a plan for him.”
There is no “at least” when you have lost one of your children. My surviving twin is not a consolation prize. Children are not interchangeable or replaceable ― not even in the situation where you have a living, breathing identical reminder of the child you have lost. If anything, having this reminder makes it so easy to imagine a carbon copy of the boisterous little boy with chubby hands and a dimple in his right cheek that should be here jumping on the couch and finger painting on himself along with his twin.
The author and her husband in October 2018, about six weeks before Nicholas died. (Photo: Courtesy of Jenna Fletcher)
I don’t believe my son’s death happened for a reason or that a loving God would have a plan to take a sweet newborn away from any parent ― but I also don’t believe that the people who said those things were purposely trying to hurt me.
Some of it was fear, I’m sure. Friends have told me there’s something profoundly distressing about watching someone you love living out your worst nightmare. Witnessing a loss like this up close makes you painfully aware that this ― or something equally as traumatic ― could happen to you. It forces you to confront the bitter reality that the unthinkable can happen to anyone.
There also isn’t adequate language to discuss the loss of a baby. While the words exist to discuss the loss of a spouse or parents, what do you call a parent who has lost a baby? What’s more, how do you refer to a twin who’s lost a twin? How do I eloquently convey our family’s situation when it comes up?
I don’t know ― even after living in this world of parenting a twinless twin for three and half years and being intimately familiar with the extreme happiness of having my son tangled with the extreme grief of losing my other son.
Earlier this week when I learned of the death of soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo’s son, who was a twin and who is survived by his twin sister, my heart broke for him and his family. Variations of the story appeared in my social media feeds and, feeling a connection to the family and what they’re going through, I clicked on all of them.
I knew I probably shouldn’t read the comments on the stories, but I couldn’t help myself. While there were many people saying how sad it was and how sorry they were, there were many others saying variations of the same terrible things we heard when we lost our son.
“I send condolences to the family, but doesn’t this man have like five other children?”
“At least you have other children and the other twin lived.”
“At least you know you can have babies.”
M with Nicholas' urn in 2019. This was shortly after he came home from the NICU. (Photo: Courtesy of Jenna Fletcher)
While reading the most callous comments ― those asking if Ronaldo’s girlfriend Georgina Rodriguez was vaccinated while pregnant and accusing the family of seeking attention and sympathy ― I was reminded of the person who told me, “Sons are better than daughters. Have lots more sons,” less than three weeks after my son died, while his twin brother was fighting to grow in the NICU.
I was appalled by the savage insensitivity of these types of comments when they were said to me and again as I read them in reaction to another family’s unthinkable loss.
I also saw comment after comment questioning, “why is this news?” ― especially when there were so many terrible things happening in the world, from the war in Ukraine to yet another wave of the pandemic. “People lose babies every day and it doesn’t make the news. Just because he’s famous im (sic) supposed to care? They don’t care about all the other loses [sic]. It’s unfortunate but doesn’t change anything for us,” one commenter wrote.
It might not change anything for the rest of the world, but for anyone navigating child loss, everything changes. Life is forever divided into before and after. And because we don’t talk about these deaths ― because they “aren’t news” ― those of us who experience them feel so alone. It’s the kind of alone that doesn’t go away because it’s never discussed and therefore can never be vanquished. So it remains ― even years after the death.
According to the Center for Loss in Multiple Births (CLIMB), multiples are at greater risk of early death; twins are about five times as likely to die in infancy and for triplets, it’s 10 times. There’s a whole lot of people out there who have navigated or are navigating the loss of a twin or triplet and almost no one is talking about it ― or the unique questions and situations that come with it.
And that’s why the death of Cristiano Ronaldo’s son is important. That’s why it’s news. Because of his openness, another parent of a twinless twin can see a piece of themselves in places they haven’t before. They can feel less invisible. Less alone. Someone else might hear about this tragedy and perhaps think about the world in a way they didn’t previously ― and maybe they’ll find better words to say than the ones we heard too frequently.
I’m hopeful Ronaldo’s story will jumpstart a dialogue, the way conversations were started when other celebrities like Chrissy Teigan and Meghan Markle shared their stories of pregnancy and infant loss.
We need to have more of those kinds of conversations. Thankfully the loss parent community has made progress. When I had my first miscarriage in 2013, I told only those closest to us. These days stories of pregnancy and infant loss are being shared more widely, but there’s almost no one who talks about what it’s like to lose a child in a multiples situation.
The author and baby M in 2019. (Photo: Courtesy of Jenna Fletcher)
After the death of our son, I searched for stories of parents who lost a twin. I came up mostly dry, but I did find one woman who wrote about the death of two of her triplets. I wrote to her on the day we had a funeral for our son, desperate to know if she ever felt better.
“Can you look at your surviving triplet without being sad about your other children?” I asked.
“It’s been five and a half years,” she replied. “While the grief never does go away, it changes over time. I’m the happiest I’ve been since before I had children.”
That gave me hope. It still gives me hope as I travel this difficult path. The way forward is not easy ― I don’t think it will ever be ― but there are things that can make it easier. One of them is simply acknowledging that these tragedies happen and though they may make us uncomfortable, the people that live them need them to be shared so we aren’t navigating them in some lonely void. Hopefully by hearing my story and Ronaldo’s story and more and more stories like ours, we can find a new language to talk about ― and to ― people in our painful situation that supports us and honors our loss and the joy that remains at the same time.
Jenna Fletcher writes about loss, parenting, health and wellness, and food. She runs a food blog at www.seasonedsprinkles.com. When she’s not writing or thinking about food, Jenna likes creating things, trying to be a yogi, riding horses with her daughter and chasing her sons.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.