Did your sibling die alongside you in the womb? The vanishing twin syndrome
How many of us have feelings we can’t explain that seem to have always been there. Feelings of loneliness, of missing something, of longing or emptiness. I know these are feelings we can all have from time to time, but that is not what I am referring to.
It is the sense that we have always carried these feelings, and can never relinquish them, no matter how hard we try to overcome them. The worst is not being able to locate where they began.
Do you long for a companion or a close friend to share everything with? Again, this is a feeling we can all have from time to time. But for you is it pervasive, permanent? Is the most satisfying task the one you can do with another? Standing side by side peeling the potatoes? Reading a book together or watching TV? Just hanging out?
If so, you may have had a companion in the womb that died before you were born. You may think this exceptional, but since the 1980s we have known that around one fifth of conceptions produce twins.
As the proportion of twin births is only 3%, the others were conceived but died prematurely in the womb. This event has a name: it is called the Vanishing Twin Syndrome, or VTS for short.
Over the past ten years we have realised that having lost a twin in the womb can have the most powerful impact on the newborn, and that at times this impact can be devastating. It is losing a loved one at the most vulnerable and sensitive time of life, and being left with a residue of grief that is worse for not being known or understood.
It is carried as unfinished business for the whole of life. And twenty percent of us are like that. Just look around your family, or your friends at a party or in the office. If there are ten people it could be that two will be survivors of death in the womb.
Twenty years ago my teacher Ahrara Bhakti Carisbrook mentioned it, and I discussed it in my 1994 book, Notes to Transformation. It was not until the issue kept turning up among our clients that we realised how enormous it was – both in numbers and impact.
When the Crucible Centre published information about VTS as recently as three years ago, we searched the web and the university libraries, and found nothing on the emotional impact of inter-uterine death on the surviving twin.
It was as if babies bring nothing from the womb but their bodies – and therefore anything else could be left out of the picture.
Yet survivors did grieve and their lives were changed by the death. Here are the words of someone who knew she had lost a twin in the womb:
“I have spent my life listening for something. I now realise I was listening for that other heartbeat, not my mother’s but the one that vanished. The sound of a heartbeat is meant to create a feeling of safety, but for me it does the opposite because it takes me back to that place where I was trying to hear the one that wasn’t there any longer. Thus, I am very noise-sensitive, yet can’t tune out of listening in a hyper-vigilant way.”
We have done a great deal of work with VTS at the Crucible Centre. We now understand it well. I live with one. My partner in life, Hilary, lost a twin in the first trimester. She finds it endlessly satisfying to share her day-to-day events with me or her diary, and has always been fascinated by twins. She loves to have me holding her from behind so that her back is covered, just as she was with her twin inside her mother. Sometimes she can’t do things on her own unless I am nearby.
Since childhood Hilary has been detachedly interested in death experiences, and fascinated in twins, yet in a fairly relaxed and detached way. She has been strongly influenced in her life by this event, but not traumatised. She was lucky, for her case is not typical.
Sarah would bring all her relationships to a quick end because, though she could not have told herself why, she could not bear the fear they would abandon her if they got too close. The decision she had made in the womb was “In memory of him I would be alone forever”.
Mary had anorexia that turned out to be linked to her foetal guilt that her twin had died because she had ‘stolen’ all the food.
Bill spent a lifetime of illness because he felt poisoned in the womb.
What sets a survivor apart from others is that even where there has been little suffering in childhood, they still have feelings of loneliness and abandonment. People often blame themselves, or follow a spiritual path so they can stay with their dead partner. For them it always seems “better out there!”
You must be asking ‘How do we know these things? How can you remember anything from within the womb? Isn’t it too early?’
This is a very real question, for it is conventional wisdom that the foetus cannot have consciousness in the first trimester as the organs for sensing and the mind for remembering are not sufficiently developed. Nevertheless, with the right support, these memories do come back.
Some people use hypnotism, but we work through a deep self-reflection process in which we support their journey energetically. When clients turn inwards with this support they can connect totally with the body sensations and emotional feelings they had in the womb.
We have found that working with survivors means working with their souls, and has shown us that souls are present in the foetal field from conception, and that souls experience and remember.
David Chamberlain and Jenny Wade have published widely on womb-memories, and recently Althea Hayton edited a collection of articles called Untwinned. (www.wombtwin.com )
Chamberlain described a pregnant woman who was having an amniotic fluid test. Videotapes showed that when the needle was inserted into the uterus, the baby turned toward the needle and batted it away. Thinking they had seen an aberration, medical staff repeated the insertion, and again the baby batted it away. Other reports state that babies routinely withdraw from needles as they are inserted into the uterus. Is this not consciousness?
Alessandra Piontelli describes a twin pair at about four months. When one of the twins was actively aggressive, the other twin withdrew and placed his head against the placenta. Five years later they still had the same relationship, and whenever there was tension between them the passive twin would go to his room and put his head on his pillow.
It seems clear that foetuses are conscious beings, learning and adjusting in the womb to the events around them.
Ronald Laing wrote that prenatal memories are the most influential because they are the first. In The Facts of Life he wrote, “The environment is registered from the very beginning of my life; by the first one (cell) of me. What happens to the first one or two of me may reverberate throughout all subsequent generations of me (my cells).”
You may have heard the story of the pregnant cellist who was practising for the Brahms concerto, and found some years later that her child could play that piece without a score.
We are taught that it is not until the infant is born that mind and feelings respond to the environment. We are told that at birth the baby has an ‘unformed’ mind and is still a tabula rasa, an empty slate. After working for so many years with pre-natal experiences and traumas, it became obvious that this cannot be true. The foetus has attitudes and beliefs that are growing within it alongside the cells of the body and the brain.
How was it possible for a foetus, often barely more than a few weeks old, to have feelings in response to an event in the womb, and continue to carry those feelings into adulthood? In the first trimester when most twins die, the foetus has a spinal chord but the brain is still miniscule. Yet our clients were describing memories and feelings recalled from the first trimester of life with absolute clarity.
We began to notice that more than emotional memories were involved, as the memories and processes of discernment were lucid. There seemed to be another factor that was more sophisticated than the simple reactions we would expect to find at the foetal level.
There were clear indications that the surviving twin responded to the death in the womb in ways that could only be called intelligent. It was as if the foetus was being presented with choices, and swung toward one or the other with such determination that it affected the whole of later life. It was a process that could only be called ‘decision-making’. This is an adult concept, yet there has been no other way to describe the clinical evidence from our clients.
We have concluded that losing a twin is one of the most powerful events occurring in the womb. It takes place so early in the creation of the foetus that the consequent feelings become embedded into the physical and emotional being of the adult. These feelings are almost impossible to detect in normal therapy.
When a twin dies in the womb the cells of the dead foetus are usually absorbed by the mother. This can affect her health and her teeth. Sometimes the foetus stays in the womb, and this shrivelled little homunculus is called a papyraceus.
My aunt actually absorbed her twin into her own body, and it was not until she was twenty and studying medicine at Guys Hospital in London that she had an old pain in her gut investigated. They pulled a little foetus out of her abdomen. It was only a couple of centimetres long, and now rests in a bottle at the hospital.
Her twin’s hair had grown quite long, as had her fingernails, no doubt nourished through my aunt’s body.
How do we identify that someone has lost a twin in the womb? One of our modalities is Sandplay, in which you place small objects into a tray filled with sand. The objects chosen and their symbolic significance usually make the meaning pretty clear.
Fred has little sense of achievement, and cannot form intimate or lasting bonds. In the tray he marked an almond-like shape in the sand. In the middle he placed a glass ball enclosing a skull; a fossil on the right, and between them clasped hands. A little goanna was placed on the fossil, which he said had feelings of “soft and uncertain longing.” He then remembered being told he had had a girl-twin that had died well before his birth. He then identified with the goanna and the fossil, and with the hand helplessly holding onto the departed sister. He felt he was the “dead fossil” without her. His inner ‘centre’ lay in the white hands, clasping onto the female who had gone.
Where are these memories held? Who remembers these feelings? In the early months the foetus does not have the physical capacity to hear or see, let alone sense or remember experiences beyond the placenta.
Both Wade and Chamberlain have published verifiable adult memories of experiences in the womb that are so precise we have to conclude there is a witnessing medium capable of sensing and remembering during parturition. We find that this ‘witness’ is present in the womb or close to the foetus and the mother all through pregnancy.
The witness would be the soul. The memories, the grief and the loss lie between souls. The trauma of the death that becomes locked into our developing psyche in the womb and continues into adulthood is a soul trauma.
The most effective healing procedure has been found to be remembering, feeling and then forgiving, all in the most profound way possible. Though the work is delicate, we have been totally convinced of the truth of these explorations by the emotional coherence of our client’s experiences. In coming to understand what is happening we have found that few theological beliefs about soul are as helpful as what our clients tell us.
Our work into the nature of soul has produced some extraordinary findings. When you think about them they are reasonable, and fit our experiences, even if shrugged off by many in the psycho-medical establishment.
The souls of twins in the womb form a relationship from the moment of conception, if not before. It is our souls who remember when a companion leaves, and later when we connect with our souls from the heart, the memories come flooding back, and all is forgiven.
John James is a therapist, architect, philosopher and medieval historian. With his wife Hilary and partner Marg Garvan he founded the Crucible Centre to train therapists in Sandplay and in Transpersonal Psychology. Their exploration into soul and energy work has just been published as The Great Field, published by Westgrinstead.
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