Losing someone close is always painful, but the death of a twin brings a special sense of loss. The Lone Twins Network aims to help. Emma Cook reports
JAN WATSON always had a sixth sense about her twin sister Gill. She would experience powerful emotional, sometimes physical signals that her sister was in pain or distress. On the day Gill gave birth, Jan, a college administrator, was oblivious to the fact yet developed acute abdominal pains and a rash on her stomach. Then she announced to her father, without knowing why, "Gill's given birth, what's she going to call him?" It was, of course, a baby boy.

When Gill was first diagnosed with breast cancer, Jan was abroad but felt unusually distressed, absolutely convinced that something terrible had happened to her identical sibling. "It's hard to explain but when I felt like that I knew I was right - that something was going wrong." Then four years later Gill died of cancer and Jan was left feeling as if half her identity had been extinguished. "It was like losing a limb," she says. "A part of you has gone and you know you can't get it back."

Joan Woodward, psychotherapist and founder of the support group the Lone Twin Network, explains: "If your spouse dies it's a terrible loss but you have had an existence beforehand. You haven't lost something that's part of yourself and been closeted in the smallest space that exists for two people."

Woodward, now in her 60s, lost her twin sister at three years old and grew up feeling that something indefinable was missing from her life. "The same questions kept reappearing: what are you searching for all the time and why do you feel so deep-down lonely when there are people around?" While working as a psychotherapist in the mid-1980s, she became aware that very little material existed on the subject of twin bereavement.

Woodward carried out the first research of its kind into the state of bereaved adult twins. Out of the 215 lone twins that she interviewed, more than 80 per cent described their loss as severe. She also found that same-sex survivors felt more traumatised than different-sex ones, and that separation can be just as painful when a twin dies at a very young age. "Many of those who lost a twin around the time of birth had a life long sense of loss, with no memories or shared belongings from which to take comfort." If, as Woodward suggests, memory occurs in the foetus around six months, then the last three months in the womb is a time when twins begin to have an awareness of one another's existence. As one survivor told Woodward, "we had the most important nine months together before we were born".

In response to her findings, Woodward was invited to set up the Lone Twin Network in 1989 by Dr Elizabeth Bryan, medical director of the Multiple Births Foundation. Lone twins who had been interviewed for the research were invited along to the first meeting. There are now about 400 lone twins registered and more than 100 get together every spring in London or Birmingham to share their experiences. There are also local meetings and members are in regular contact.

Richard Holden, 41 and manager of a team of social workers, joined the Lone Twin Network two years ago. He lost his twin brother Robert at five days old. It wasn't until his mid-30s, when Holden grew depressed and saw a psychotherapist, that he really confronted the loss. "During therapy the idea of being a twin began to gain significance," he says. "Sharing time in the womb is very special. It's about being intimate without making any effort. For me it was coming to terms with the idea of something quite profound that is suddenly missing."

Perhaps the most painful loss is suffered by the lone twin whose sibling commits suicide - sometimes because they cannot come to terms with their plural identity. As Woodward points out: "If you can't develop a sense of identity, how can you exist?''

John Paish, a cinema technician aged 50, lost his twin sister aged 29. She died from taking tranquillisers. It was an open verdict and nobody ever knew if the overdose was accidental or not. "That's what is so upsetting - it can never be finalised," says Paish, who finds adult relationships particularly stressful as a result. "It's very difficult because your twin is, in a sense, absolutely ideal. Certainly my sister was the one person I could be real with in a way that I can't be with anybody else."

Joining the Lone Twin Network has been a support for Paish, particularly because members try to keep in touch with the uniquely positive aspects of being a twin. "You're special," he reflects. "Wherever you go people are pleased to see you and, whatever happens afterwards, that's an incredibly good start in life."

8 For details of the Lone Twin Network contact Barbara Read: 0181 740 3519