Like most identical twins, Amy McDonald, 26, and her sister, Mandy, had a supertight bond. But in 2003, at 22, Mandy was in a fatal car accident, and Amy’s life was turned upside down. ‘At first, I guess I was in denial because I kept expecting to hear from Mandy all the time or I’d start to dial her cell number, forgetting that she wasn’t around to answer,’ recalls Amy. ‘It didn’t really sink in that she was dead until her funeral. Realising that I’d never see her again was devastating.
Losing any family member is heartbreaking; losing an identical twin is almost unbearable. ‘The pain is somewhat more acute for identical twins because the similarities between them are so great,’ says Nancy L. Segal, PhD, professor of psychology at the Twin Studies Centre at California State University at Fullerton. ‘Their whole sense of self has to be revised.’ Amy understands that completely. ‘For my whole life, it was ‘we’,’ she explains. ‘Then, suddenly, it was me. I felt like I had lost a part of myself in that accident.’
Compounding the sadness for twins is that few people can empathise with their unique kind of grief (though multiple births are on the rise – 3.2 percent of births were twins in 2004, compared with 1.9 percent in 1984, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention – it’s still a relatively rare stare of being). ‘Very few people know how to react when a twin dies,’ says Segal, whose book Invisible by Two describes the lives of twins. The result: The survivor often feels more isolated.
‘A twin’s relationship is so special that the loss is special too,’ Amy says. ‘When people tried to console me, it made me angry and more lonely because I felt like they didn’t get it.
But a few weeks after Mandy’s death, Amy finally found people who did understand what she was going through when she went to Twinless Twins, an international support group for surviving twins with 400 active members. ‘I felt an immediate connection,’ says Amy of her first meeting. ‘Being with others in my situation let me know that what I was experiencing was normal.’
Today, Amy is the New England regional director of the group. Though she still grieves for her lost sister – ‘my birthday is really hard,’ she says – having other twinless twins to talk to helps her cope. ‘Nobody will replace Mandy, and I don’t want that,’ she says. ‘But at least now I don’t feel so isolated.’