So­ci­ety mines the lives of twins for greater mean­ing. But what mean­ing can be gleaned when one dies? When artist Emily McIl­roy’s twin brother passed away at the age of 24, she lost half of her­self. Con­tribut­ing writer Martha Cheng out­lines how she has coped.

Peo­ple used to ask fra­ter­nal twins Emily and Ross Mcil­roy, “What does it feel like to be a twin?” They would look at each other and say, “What does it feel like not to be one?” For 24 years, be­ing one half of a set of twins was the only thing Emily knew. And then she lost her other half.

There’s a fas­ci­na­tion with twins that ex­ists ev­ery­where, from play­grounds to psy­cho­log­i­cal stud­ies: We want to know what it’s like to have a twin, how they are the same, how they are dif­fer­ent, what this unique re­la­tion­ship says about na­ture ver­sus nur­ture. We mine twins’ lives, dig­ging for clues about our own. But what hap­pens when one twin dies? Is it sim­i­lar to the death of an­other fam­ily mem­ber—an­other sib­ling, a child, a spouse? Or is it un­like the loss of any other com­pan­ion?

Twin loss, par­tic­u­larly within the first year of birth, is more com­mon than many re­al­ize. In fact, the in­fant mor­tal­ity rate of mul­ti­ple births is five times higher than that of sin­gle births. Philip K. Dick and Elvis Pres­ley both lost twin sib­lings early on; Dick’s twin died just five weeks af­ter birth, but through­out the au­thor’s life, he would ref­er­ence the pres­ence of his “phan­tom twin.” First­hand ac­counts of twin loss, even those where the twin was lost in utero, of­ten de­scribe a feel­ing of “some­thing miss­ing” for the rest of their lives. Some African re­li­gions be­lieve that twins even share a soul, so when one dies, there are elab­o­rate rituals per­formed in or­der to save the soul of the sur­viv­ing twin.

“[Ross] was my child­hood in a lot of ways,” Emily says. “Al­most all my mem­o­ries of child­hood have him in them or on the pe­riph­ery of them.” The sib­lings were born and raised in Nor­man, Ok­la­homa. In the fam­ily photo al­bum, there are rarely pho­tos of them apart. They hit de­vel­op­men­tal mile­stones to­gether—learn­ing to walk, talk, and read at the same time. “I al­ways thought of be­ing part of two,” Emily says. When she and Ross were 4 years old, their dad, re­flect­ing on how they al­ways played to­gether, wrote in his jour­nal: “Un­doubt­edly, there will be a price to pay for your close­ness.” To have a com­pan­ion means shar­ing in their joys, but also in their sor­rows. And, as Emily learned, to have a com­pan­ion also means risk­ing the loss of that com­pan­ion.

Hav­ing a twin, Emily says, is as nat­u­ral as hav­ing an arm or a leg. “He was al­ways there, like an ex­ten­sion of my­self,” she says. “I al­ways felt our lives in or­bit around each other.” The twin story they loved to tell was of the match­ing scars on the bot­toms of their left feet, the re­sult of sep­a­rate ac­ci­dents that took place ex­actly a year apart at the ex­act same lo­ca­tion in­side their fam­ily’s Ok­la­homa cabin. “Our spir­its were made of the same stuff, but the way we ex­pressed things was com­pletely dif­fer­ent,” Emily says. “I was al­ways much more de­lib­er­ate and care­ful. He was al­ways more ex­treme and reck­less.” Ross was of­ten get­ting into ac­ci­dents and be­ing taken to the emer­gency room, she re­mem­bers, start­ing from age 2, when he climbed out of the crib and fell, break­ing his fore­arm. “I was al­ways wor­ried about him, I was al­ways try­ing to pro­tect him.”

Emily was one minute older, de­liv­ered via Cae­sarean sec­tion. But her brother was ac­tu­ally closer to the birthing canal. “He should have been born first,” Emily says. “He al­ways felt cheated out of that. He used to say, ‘Well, that just means you’re go­ing to die one minute be­fore me.’ There’s this sense with twins that ev­ery­thing has to be to­tally bal­anced and just and fair. If I was born one minute ear­lier, I was go­ing to die one minute ear­lier. Ev­ery­thing will hap­pen in tan­dem be­cause it started in tan­dem.”

Ross was in­ter­ested in both sci­ence and mu­sic, but took a year off from both in or­der to pur­sue mod­el­ing af­ter be­ing dis­cov­ered on a San Diego beach. At the time of his death, Ross was pur­su­ing a PH.D in neu­ropsy­chol­ogy at Birk­beck, Univer­sity of Lon­don. Ex­plain­ing his de­ci­sion to study the mind, he once told Emily: “How could I do any­thing else when there is so much we don’t know about our own brains?” In 2007, Ross died from an ac­ci­den­tal pre­scrip­tion drug over­dose.

“When he died, I won­dered, what part of me still ex­ists?” Emily says. Ex­plor­ing th­ese ques­tions of iden­tity—of who she is, and who her twin was, and is, even af­ter death—has been a part of her heal­ing process. She has spent the past eight years re­search­ing, read­ing, and writ­ing on her per­sonal blog. She pub­lished a pa­per, “One Half Liv­ing for Two: Cross-cul­tural Paradigms of Twin­ship and Twin Loss,” in OMEGA, Jour­nal of Death and Dy­ing. And she has spent thou­sands of hours cre­at­ing art­work.

In 2008, Emily moved to Honolulu af­ter be­ing ac­cepted to the Univer­sity of Hawai‘i’s MFA pro­gram. She had ap­plied for seven schools and was sure she’d end up in Cal­i­for­nia. How­ever, to­ward the end of the ap­pli­ca­tion process, she had three dreams about Hawai‘i, and so she sent in an­other ap­pli­ca­tion for good mea­sure. De­spite her hav­ing a 4.0 grade point av­er­age, UH was the only school that ac­cepted Emily. “Be­ing here [in Hawai‘i] makes me feels closer to him, like I am part of some larger or­ches­tra­tion that he was a part of,” she writes.

Sky Burial is a tan­gi­ble ex­pres­sion of the artist work­ing through the loss of her twin. The ex­pan­sive paint­ing, which mea­sures seven feet by thir­teen feet, de­picts a mass of hum­ming­birds swarm­ing a clus­ter of blood-red petals. Crim­son stains the birds’ beaks and wings. Some of the feath­ers are irides­cent, some are like shim­mery scales, some are an opaque black. There are form­less, dark shapes in the mob of birds, as well as dis­tinct, pierc­ing ob­jects—black eyes ringed in white, and long, thin, sharp beaks. It is a piece of beauty and sav­agery, frag­ile yet fierce.

The idea for Sky Burial, which was dis­played in the Artists of Hawai‘i 2015 ex­hi­bi­tion at the Honolulu Mu­seum of Art, was born dur­ing Emily’s artist res­i­dency at Brush Creek Ranch in Wy­oming. Here, a bird­feeder hung out­side her stu­dio, at­tract­ing a few hum­ming­birds that she de­scribed as fairy­like. As their num­bers grew to nearly 50, how­ever, the cu­mu­la­tive noise of their wings be­came fright­en­ing, and their beaks be­came weapons. Watch­ing them, she was struck by the vast ex­tremes that in­hab­ited their tiny bod­ies. “Hum­ming­birds are del­i­cate and beau­ti­ful and ex­quis­ite,” Emily says. “But they’re also re­ally ag­gres­sive and men­ac­ing. They bat­tle each other with th­ese beaks like swords, fight­ing each other for food.”

Ob­serv­ing this di­chotomy called to mind her twin. “How could Ross, who was so ra­di­ant and beau­ti­ful and bril­liant, also suf­fer so se­verely from men­tal ill­ness

and ad­dic­tion?” she wrote in her blog, de­scrib­ing her process of cre­at­ing Sky Burial. “How can beauty, strength, and grace be so in­ex­tri­ca­bly paired with vi­o­lence, fragility, and de­struc­tion?”

Sky Burial, which she pro­duced in her stu­dio in Honolulu, poses this ques­tion to view­ers, while its cre­ation of­fered Emily a frame­work for heal­ing. “This process has par­al­leled—and pro­vided me with con­sis­tent prac­tice for—the painful but nec­es­sary and in­evitable art of learn­ing to let go of a loved one,” she writes. Over the course of two years, Emily con­tin­ued adding and sub­tract­ing lay­ers, paint­ing and wip­ing and sand­ing and stain­ing the can­vas over and over again.

Part of let­ting go means dis­man­tling a planned fu­ture, one that feels as real as the past. In Emily’s imag­in­ings of their time to come, the sib­lings would have ex­plored for­eign coun­tries to­gether, col­lab­o­rated on art­work, taken care of each other’s chil­dren. They were sup­posed to grow old to­gether. “Our lives just didn’t end up un­fold­ing to­gether the way we had imag­ined they would, the way we be­lieved they should,” Emily writes. “But the truth is that none of that was ever promised. Re­ally hav­ing to know that, not just in my mind, but in my heart, has been the most painful ex­pe­ri­ence of my life. We had each other for nine months in­side our mother, and an­other 24 years af­ter that. That was the time we were given, and I am grate­ful for all of it.”

Still, that doesn’t mean that her fu­ture will be de­void of her twin’s pres­ence. Since his death, Emily has come to be­lieve that her twin’s soul is in­tact. “His spirit is be­ing per­pet­u­ated in my life through my life,” Emily writes. “A large piece of [heal­ing] has been learn­ing to rec­og­nize the times that he is as­sert­ing his pres­ence in my life and his en­dur­ing role as my be­yond-life­long com­pan­ion.”

She says she feels Ross es­pe­cially when she is trav­el­ing. He al­ways liked an ad­ven­ture. Emily re­calls a div­ing trip to Fiji she took on the fourth an­niver­sary of his death. “I was think­ing of and miss­ing him when the Fi­jian boat cap­tain turned to me, looked me straight in the eye, and sud­denly started singing a song that my brother al­ways used to sing. There was no doubt in my mind that Ross was there.”

To keep up with Emily’s blog, visit emi­lym­cil­

Emily Mcil­roy’s work Sky Burial is a tan­gi­ble ex­pres­sion of the artist work­ing through

the loss of her twin brother, Ross.

“When he died, I won­dered, what part of me still ex­ists?” Emily says. Her twin passed away un­ex­pect­edly in 2007, and ex­plor­ing this ques­tion has been a part of her heal­ing process.

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