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Here’s why half of those who lose an identical sibling die within two years

In 1987, the identical twin brother of award-winning food photographer David Loftus died, aged 24, following a fatally miscalculated injection in hospital. Since then, David has been tormented by grief and guilt. 

So last year, more than 30 years on, he began a diary in which he records both their cherished childhood memories and the pain and regret he has suffered since John died. 

This exclusive extract from his book, The Diary Of A Lone Twin, tells a poignant and powerful story of love, loss and recovery. 

Loneliness is a feeling different from ‘being alone’. One can be alone and completely at peace but you can feel lonely even when others are around.

When my identical twin brother John died in 1987, at the age of 24, I was in a relationship, I had my mother, my siblings and my friends, but overnight I became in my mind the loneliest man on earth.

I feel it so much less now but it still sneaks up on me sometimes, as it did on a photo shoot at Jamie Oliver’s house in Essex last year.

Over the past 20 years we’ve done a lot of work together but my diary recalls my sadness during what should have been an enjoyable shoot.

Peas in a pod: Even David struggles to say which twin is John and which is him in their childhood photos

‘Ultimately it was a long, hot, hard day, with some beautiful and inspiring food, glorious scenery in the fields and gardens of Saffron Walden, and hundreds of photos taken.

‘We were surrounded by black swans and their cygnets, tufted ducks and their ducklings, peacocks and woodpeckers. But it was also a day of being surrounded by people, some of whom I know very well, but feeling utterly and desperately alone.’

That entry comes from the daily journal I kept in 2018, from January 1 to November 11, the year after the 30th anniversary of John’s death. Thirty years of surviving as a singleton after spending nearly half my life as an identical twin.

In recording my feelings, I was fuelled —even so long after his death — by a deep sense of injustice and festering guilt about what happened to John. But I also wanted to show the ultimately positive me that lives and breathes today.

Of course, feelings of mourning and loss can still knock me over, like every seventh wave among incoming breakers, but now I just ride them a little better and a little longer.

In that respect, I am a success story, thanks largely to my best chum Tim, who as a 14-year-old survived an explosion which killed his identical twin Nick.

We were introduced by the late Dr Elizabeth Bryan, a pioneer in the field of twin studies who knew that half of those who lose their identical twin die within two years. Tragically this statistic was borne out when another lone twin I tried to help at Dr Bryan’s suggestion took their own life just before our first meeting date. I knew that even one less death in the world would make publishing my story worthwhile, but sometimes I wondered whether I could continue exploring the loss, just as I have been unable to wet-shave myself since shaving John in hospital.

The contours of his face became so familiar to me that I am haunted whenever I see my own reflection and the feeling I had on day one of completing my journal was of facing a very large, very clear mirror, for the first time since his death.

WINTER/SPRING 2018

David Loftus in 2015. iN 1987, his identical twin died, aged 24, following a fatally miscalculated injection in hospital

David Loftus in 2015. iN 1987, his identical twin died, aged 24, following a fatally miscalculated injection in hospital

So much in a photographer’s career relies on those around them and a highlight of this part of the year was working with Prue Leith on her new book. Like her, the days were filled with colour and vivacity and this reminded me why I turned to photography after John died, swapping the solitary drawing board of the illustrator for the company of strangers circled behind a photographer’s back and watching one’s every move.

John was an illustrator, too, and for those who have lived and worked together, as we did, the death of a twin can leave the surviving sibling feeling so utterly bereft as to doubt whether they can ever function as a complete person.

Mostly I have always felt a half- person, walking in the shadow of my lost twin, and there was one occasion, shortly after he died, when I felt that I might have sensed his presence. That was in a church in the Lake District where the two of us had spent much time in our youth.

Needing some time away from the friends I was on holiday with, I was sitting alone in the front pew when I felt a hand on either shoulder. Every hair on my body stood on end and I shivered violently. The pressure remained only for seconds but what initially felt so cold and terrifying ultimately became warm and comforting.

I wonder now whether emotional tiredness conjured up this mythical moment but I don’t think so and neither can I explain why, after John died, I began waking with a jolt at 1.25am, confused and disorientated.

My mother later told me that this was the time of John’s birth with me arriving ten minutes later.

When we were in our cot, he used to hold on to my face with both hands, so tight that he drew blood. Apparently I didn’t reciprocate but neither did I cry. I accepted his hold on me and I still have those crescent-shaped scars of babyhood today, one of my few tangible legacies of John.

I am a success story, thanks largely to my best chum Tim, who as a 14-year-old survived an explosion which killed his identical twin Nick. 

We grew up in Carshalton, Surrey, the eldest of our parents’ four children. I have many memories of us running, charging, chasing, flying through the air on our wooden ‘shuggy boat’ — a swing Father built that could seat the four of us.

It was a beautiful soft blue and would swing so high from the old plum tree at the bottom of the garden that I’m sure the childhood shrieks could be heard for miles. Our mother was a GP and our father, who died a few years before John, was a stockbroker, beautifully dressed and impeccably mannered.He was greatly disappointed when, as we got a little older, John invariably got up from dinner before cheese or dessert and asked to be excused. As he left the room, he would say, without fail: ‘But Papa, life is so short.’

As ever, he was right.

My earliest memory dates from October 31, 1967. The image is as clear as crystal: us on the deck of a ship, with our parents, just off Southampton Sound.

We were waving our handkerchiefs at passengers on the RMS Queen Mary as she embarked on her last voyage to California. John was so upset for me when my favourite handkerchief fluttered from my tiny grip and disappeared into the green blue wake of the departing liner that he dropped his too, so that they could be together for ever.

A red polka-dot and a blue polka-dot hankie, tossed by the swell. We watched as they got smaller and smaller, no longer upset by our loss. It was our birthday and we had just turned four.

Last year, more than 30 years on, he began a diary in which he records both their cherished childhood memories and the pain and regret he has suffered since John died

Last year, more than 30 years on, he began a diary in which he records both their cherished childhood memories and the pain and regret he has suffered since John died

John never let me forget that he was ten minutes older than me but in home movies and pictures taken when we were younger I have no idea which one of us is which. Distinguishing us is possible only when we are ‘in costume’, John in the Captain Scarlet uniform he got one Christmas.

I was very jealous of that and, although my Native American uniform with feathered headdress eventually grew on me, John would always kill me with his pistol before I’d even reached for a suckered arrow in my quiver. Ten minutes older, always.

SUMMER 2018

Working again with Jamie for the first time in ages, there was the added bonus that for one shoot at the end of July he brought his son Buddy along. Jamie was one of the two best men at my wedding to my darling wife Ange in 2016, and I’m godfather to Buddy. He is the sweetest of sweet boys.

It saddens me that John will never meet my own son Paros or my daughter Pascale, nor they him. The children from my marriage to my first wife Debbie, these two young adults are caring and sensitive souls, as I was reminded when in July we went on a family holiday to Paros, the Greek island after which my son is named.

Since John and I spent many happy summers there, a visit seemed a must during my ‘year of living retrospectively’, but it was the first time I had been back since he died, and walking up the white-washed streets was overwhelming.

So, too, was the evening Paros was jumping from rocks in a bay called Agios Fokas. After seeing me on the shore, photographing his silhouette against the setting sun, he said he knew it would conjure memories in me and he was right.

I have an almost identical picture of John, and the photograph of Paros on my phone could so easily be my twin: same wild hair, deep tan, knees tucked in for maximum splash and a little tummy from too much Greek food and beer.

I keep the photo of John in my ‘cabinet of curiosities’, a deeply personal room at my home in South-West London, shared only with Ange and the children.

One photo, snapped at the front door of our childhood home, shows John and me smiling nervously in our uniforms before we set off for our first day at our all-boys grammar school. Three years later we are seen skinny and bronzed, long hair soaked, laughing hysterically as we play in a swimming pool at Niagara Falls, aged 14. God we were happy on that trip.

Double joy: John and David with their mother in Surrey

Double joy: John and David with their mother in Surrey

The ephemera of our lives together spans 25 years. One of the last photos I have of John, handsomely moody in black and white, is one I took in our back garden one balmy evening in 1986.

It’s so hard to believe that this beautiful boy was then less than a year from dying.

Back then everyone was expecting John and his long-term girlfriend Samantha to become engaged but then came John’s brain tumour, first diagnosed in the summer of 1987.

After an operation to remove it that August he was cancer-free.

However, he continued to experience extreme headaches which were only belatedly diagnosed as meningitis, and when he had to be readmitted to hospital after much unnecessary suffering, our ire was directed mostly at a cold and unfriendly junior doctor who, as he’s now a professor and these events happened more than 30 years ago, I will refer to as Dr S. We desperately wanted John to be treated by somebody else and his bosses seemed to agree to this, but on November 3, three days after our 24th birthday, it was Dr S who walked into his hospital room to inject him with the antibiotic gentamicin.

John and I were alone and I was helping him open some presents he’d been too ill to unwrap on the day itself. Mine to him was a trip for him and Samantha on the Orient Express the following Easter.

The doctors thought he would be fit to travel again by then but his card to me was probably the last thing he wrote. The operation had left him slightly cross-eyed and with no feeling on his right side, forcing him to use his left hand.

‘Dear David. Love Johny x. I. O. U. 1 prezzie.’ it read.

It reminded me of a moment at the breakfast table many years before when his wry smile of superiority alerted me that something was off. It was only when he buttered his toast that I realised that he was using his left hand, and dextrously so.

That teenage desire to be different must have meant hours and hours of training himself to be left-handed.

Poignantly, the only time he ever needed that skill was upon our last birthday together and the effort it must have taken him to write each wobbly letter still tears me apart whenever I see it today.

AUTUMN 2018

This time of the year is always a countdown to the anniversary of John’s death on November 11. When it came I was glad to be distracted by long days shooting at Jamie’s studio, my grief forever compounded by guilt about not having protected John from Dr S.

I’ve relived what happened millions of times and whatever anyone tells me I will never forgive myself. Mother would have told Dr S that she didn’t want him to give the injection that day but, because John didn’t want to make a fuss, neither did I.

John never let me forget that he was ten minutes older than me 

Later we discovered that he had administered 80 times the prescribed amount of gentamicin. It was a careless mistake made by a young doctor under pressure, not deliberate but avoidable.

Within seconds John was being violently sick and slipped into the coma in which, bar a brief awakening a few days later, he remained until his death.

We took it in turns to maintain a 24-hour vigil at his bedside and I was at home when Mother rang to say that John had died 20 minutes earlier. Somehow I managed to get to the hospital and, utterly bereft and heartbroken, spent two hours holding the cooling hand of his dead body.

Later, the hospital would be uncommunicative and unresponsive to our distress, while the coroner and the General Medical Council appeared unwilling to address our questions about procedures for administering potentially dangerous drugs.

As for Dr S, he would go on to become Professor S at a hospital elsewhere. He has never apologised for what he did and my family continue to feel great bitterness and anger about John’s death.

It plunged me into an ocean of loneliness so dark and deep that I thought I would never find my way to the surface but two years later I met Tim. We had set aside half an hour for our first chat but ended up talking for hours and hours. Both struggling with lone twindom, we were like long-lost friends reunited after forever apart.

With Tim I found myself laughing like I hadn’t laughed in ages and he filled a vast chasm in my life.

I once read a newspaper article about the ‘Top 10 types of people to avoid having a long-term relationship with.’ Pop stars came top but identical twins were number two and photographers number three, and the article even said that the only thing worse than an identical twin was a lone, identical twin.

I’m sure my first wife Debbie would agree. We married in 1990 and, although we eventually separated 20 years later, I will always be grateful that she persuaded me into fatherhood. Along with Tim, it was Pascale and Paros who helped save my life, as has Ange who I met when she was working for Jamie Oliver’s company.

On my first date with Ange, I falteringly told her about John — she tells me now that the way I told her was as if I was telling the story for the first time, there was so much hesitant emotion in my voice. Later, waiting for our cabs, I braved a hug and a gentle kiss, surprised and relieved and oh, so over-excited to see her head turn towards mine for the first of an eternal number of kisses on the lips. Our fate was sealed, sealed with a loving kiss.

In our early days together, she found a patch on my upper back that even today still comforts both of us whenever she lays her hand on it. I think that patch is where John soothed me in the womb.

I once read a newspaper article about the ‘Top 10 types of people to avoid having a long-term relationship with.’ Pop stars came top but identical twins were number two and photographers number three, and the article even said that the only thing worse than an identical twin was a lone, identical twin. Twin sisters seen ‘fighting’ in their mother’s womb in ultrasound 

It makes me happy that she is the only one that can feel the extraordinary energy it gives out and when we got married, with Tim joining Jamie as my other best man, I had John’s childhood companion Strawbod poking out of my jacket pocket. Ten inches of well-worn teddy bear with beady, brown eyes and a badly-knitted scarf — the handiwork of a nine-year-old John — he remains a little part of my twin and has pride of place in the cabinet of curiosities, that jumble of mementoes of my life.

My love of Ange has somehow broken the ‘spell’ that this was an untouchable shrine and we have added new trinkets — a metal blue tit bought in Kew Gardens after a midsummer walk, drawings by the children, a green and yellow sea anemone beach-combed by Paros on that recent trip to the island after which he was named.

Today it feels so much brighter and more positive, a breath of fresh air wafting through and brightening every nook and cranny, and I no longer feel the intense anger of the time, just an immense, unhealing bruise of sadness.

I am also grateful that, unlike so many others, I was not sent to an early grave by my broken heart, although I came close on leaving the hospital on the day of John’s death.

That night I lay on my bed and felt myself falling deeper and deeper into a black hole, the ceiling getting further and further away until I awoke with an almighty intake of breath.

I realised that, 14 hours after John had passed away, I had been willing myself to die too. I was furious with myself and with Dr S and his cronies, but I was also determined that I wouldn’t let John down, determined that I would care for our mother, determined that I would live.

■ Diary Of A Lone Twin by David Loftus is published by Bluebird, £16.99. (c) David Loftus. To order a copy for £13.60 call 0844 571 0640. P&P free on orders over £15. Offer valid until 10/09/2019.

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