The twins lie side by side on the pillow, their little faces turned towards each other in the same way that I imagine they shared the nine months together in the womb. One twin reaches out, his tiny fingers brushing the face of his brother before coming to rest on another little hand that is identical to his own.
There’s a quiet digital bleep as I take a photograph, the camera resting on my knee to try and stop my hands from shaking as I capture picture after picture, memory after memory, minute after minute of the precious time these twins have together.
They’re identical these tiny boys; the same dark hair, the same blue eyes and the same little button noses but this is where the similarities end. Where where one twin has pink cheeks and skin blooming with health, the other is pale with skin that is almost grey and where one twin wriggles about, full of energy and of life the other is silent and still.
We stand next to the incubator, the doctor, the consultant and I and we tell mum and dad how desperately sick their little boy is. At first mum and dad don’t quite understand us, asking us to clarify what we actually mean when we say there’s nothing more we can do but then realisation comes in a sudden rush that brings tears and sobs and soul crushing pleas for us to do something, anything, no matter what it is, no matter what the cost so long as it means that their tiny boy will live.
It’s so difficult to find the balance between being gentle and compassionate but also ensuring that there is no way that our words can be misunderstood. Telling parents that there is nothing more we can do for their baby can destroy them but equally destructive is parents mistakenly thinking that there is hope when in reality there is no hope left.
After mum and dad have had some time to process the heart breaking news I ask mum if she wants her babies to be able to spend some time together. I don’t want to pile any more grief onto these parents who have had to cope with so much in such a short space of time; my question reminding them that by the end of the day the twins will be apart forever. The words that I haven’t said hang in the air between us but mum still understands the true meaning of what I’m trying to say.
At first she refuses, not wanting her healthy child to see his brother so sick or for him to see his mummy and daddy cry. I respect mum’s wishes but at the same time there is a niggling doubt at the back of my mind; the worry that if the twins don’t spend these last precious hours together, the parents will come to regret their decision.
A couple of hours later I tentatively broach the subject again, not wanting mum to think that I’m trying to undermine her decision but also desperately wanting her to not remember this day with regret as well as grief. Mum thinks for a few seconds and then asks me if I think that having the twins together is truly what’s best for them. The rational part of her knows that she needs to make the most of the time that her little boys have left together but then there is also part of her that can’t accept what’s happening and agreeing that the twins need to be together also means accepting that she is going to lose one of them.
I call the postnatal ward and one of the midwives brings the other twin down, pushing them in the little plastic cot whose wheels make a harsh, jarring sound that is at odds with the hush in the nursery. Mum and dad are already sat with their little boy carefully cradled on a pillow on their lap and I lift their other son out of his cot and snuggle him next to his brother. He turns his head to face his brother, making soft little noises but gets no response. Mum asks me whether her sick twin knows that his brother is there and I tell her that I’m sure he does, even though I have no possible way of knowing because I am sure that the bond that began from the very first second that they stopped being one and instead became two can transcend even this.
Over the next couple of hours friends and family arrive, walking into the nursery until it is full of people who have come to meet the new twins but also to say goodbye to one of them. Although the nursery is full it is also strangely quiet; the only sounds are hushed voices, the occasional sob that is quickly stifled and the cold, mechanical noises of the ventilator.
I sit beside the parents, my heart aching for them and I wonder whether being able to take one of their twins home will make their grief that tiny bit easier to bear or whether it will make it harder.
Their arms will not be empty and yet they will still ache for the little boy that should also be cradled there.
Their nursery will not be quiet and yet it will still remind them of the baby that they have lost.
The cot and toys and car seat will all have a little boy to use them but they will always know that there should be two of everything.
They will walk out of the hospital with a healthy, living baby but every time they see him they will be reminded of their baby who did not come home.
The surviving twin will soon be five and every time I see a set of twins I think of that family and wonder how they coped in those first days and weeks after losing one of their little boys. Having to cope with all the stresses and demands of caring for a new baby is hard enough but they would have also been trying to deal with a grief that they were constantly reminded about every time they looked at their living son.
I hope that they’ve been able to find joy in watching their surviving son grow up and that he has been able to at least partially relieve the ache in their hearts and in their arms that was left behind.
Louise is a full time mum and a part time neonatal nurse who has battled depression for many years but particularly during her pregnancy. She lives with her husband (the Northern One) their little boy (Squidge) and their three guinea pigs who live in the kitchen.
She blogs at 23weeksocks about lots of different and seemingly unconnected topics that she’s passionate about, including mental health, antenatal depression, neonatal care and baby loss. You can also follow Louise on Twitter (@23weeksocks) and find her on Facebook and Instagram.
In 2015 she was shortlisted in the ‘Fresh Voice’ category for the BIB Awards and the ‘Bereavement Worker’ category for the Butterfly Awards. She was also one of the keynote speakers at BritMums Live reading ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ which was her account of caring for a premature baby on the day that he died.