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Rain trickles down the marble headstone where my husband is setting fresh flowers in a vase. He hands a birthday balloon to our daughter and tells her to release it to the sky when she feels ready. She stares at the storm forming on the horizon and grips the balloon’s ribbons tighter. “It’s okay,” I whisper. “You can let go now.” Her tiny fingers release the shiny Mylar balloon and we watch as it drifts away, shrinking into a dot before it disappears into a cluster of gray clouds that mirror my grief.

Later, there will be cake and presents and candles to blow out, but there will also be an empty chair beside my daughter, where her twin brother should be.

I was five months pregnant when an ultrasound revealed that I was carrying twins. Before I had time to process the news, I learned the heartbreaking truth that one of my twins had an obstruction that was preventing his kidneys and lungs from developing properly. In utero surgery was not an option at the time; it was too great of a risk to the other baby’s health. I had to carry the dying twin to term to save his sibling’s life.

Instead of organizing a baby shower for twins, my family would be making funeral plans for my son.

I spent the last trimester of my pregnancy on complete bed rest, with the exception of weekly hospital visits to monitor the babies’ health. At each visit, I stared at the ultrasound screen and wept at the sight of my twins floating in a sea of amniotic fluid. A brother and sister face to face in the womb, their small hands reaching out as if to feel one another through the thin membrane that separated them.

Three months later, my son was delivered just moments after his sister. We said our tearful goodbyes and watched as he took his last breath in my husband’s arms. His death felt surreal, and I was overcome with grief as I clung to his sister.

Torn between sadness and joy, my healing process was slow. Whenever I saw a double stroller or babies in matching outfits, my heart ached for the boy whose smile I would never know and the voice I’d never hear call my name … Mom. The day my daughter took her first, wobbly steps, I cried for the miracle of having her, while weeping for the brother who should have been walking beside her.

As grateful as I was to have a healthy baby, I was saddened by the well-meaning comments I received after losing my son: “At least you have one baby; think of all the mothers who leave the hospital empty-handed.” “Twins would have been too much to handle. Be glad you only have one baby to take care of.” “Focus more on raising your daughter, and soon you’ll forget she had a brother.” What my friends and family didn’t understand was that my daughter was a constant reminder of the twin who was missing. I couldn’t look at her without seeing her brother and wondering what he would have been like.

I didn’t want to raise her as a twinless twin, for fear that she would feel incomplete. When she was old enough to understand, I explained to her that she had a brother who died at birth, but that we were incredibly blessed to have her. As a mother, I was forever changed by the loss, but in many ways, it made me a better parent to my daughter. I appreciated every breath, every tear and every smile. I raised her to be compassionate and strong, and to love herself. More importantly, she grew up knowing that even though she lost her twin, she was still whole.

Together, we shared the milestones of her college graduation, her first job and her first home. At times I have ached at the center of my heart for the boy who should have been there to take those steps with his sister. Letting go was hard; my grief was a private, tangible thing tucked away in a cardboard box filled with my son’s belongings. On the anniversary of his death, I would pull the box from the back of my closet and sift through the contents to remember him.

Today, my daughter is a fiercely independent woman with a quirky sense of humor and a love that knows no bounds. I still think of her brother, but the years have softened the hard edges of my grief.

Standing at my son’s grave now, the rain is gently falling, just as it did so many birthdays ago. My husband fills the vase with lilies and dusts dirt from the marble headstone. My fingers grip the Mylar balloon as I watch the sun struggling to peek past the clouds. My daughter, with one hand supporting her newborn baby and the other wrapped around my waist, leans into me. “It’s okay, Mom,” she whispers. “You can let go now.”

Marcia Kester Doyle is a freelance writer based in Florida. She is the author of “Who Stole my Spandex?: Life in the Hot Flash Lane” and blogs at menopausalmom.com.

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