06/13/2014 11:34 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Michael Rockefeller: Losing My Twin, Finding His Legacy

Almost all love relationships, except mother and child, begin after birth. And, then there are twins. Their mysterious bond begins at conception: two cells, two embryos, two fetuses, two tiny babies, sharing in and nurtured by the same rich maternal fluid and enveloping womb space. Two beings, which push up and out into life in tandem, held and made safe by each other and by the sound of their mother's heartbeat.

I am a twin, part of a beloved twinship, but part of a primary relationship that abruptly ended in 1961 when I was 23. I lost my twin brother, Michael, when he disappeared off the southern jungle coast of New Guinea while collecting indigenous art for a museum in New York City. Michael was never found. When I finally acknowledged my twin's death and connected with the deep inner loss, I realized I had not only separated from Michael, but I had also separated from myself. I have a treasured photo of Mike and me as children sitting close together on a wall, Mike smiling, me curious, both of us looking out at a beckoning world -- two small "I's" framed in a "We." Now, it was as if this photo was torn in half and the frame smashed, irretrievably broken.


My healing journey, like for many twins, was precarious and very long. I secretly denied my brother's death for 27 years in an effort to preserve a sense of our love and bond, which I depended upon for my primary identity as a twin. Also, I felt deep survivor guilt -- to acknowledge his death, to reconnect to life, meant to abandon Michael and our relationship. Our culture, which disallows death as an intrinsic part of love and life and active grieving as the natural process by which we heal, only supported my denial and inability to grieve. My family and friends, even my therapist, could not understand the essential need to take the time to bear witness to this deep loss and to the love relationship that spawned it. "Move on with your life," was the universal message. But, I am lucky, for over the years I was helped to listen inside in order to find and to develop my own separate identity. Slowly, this essential process allowed me to feel safe enough to let go of the denial and to face Michael's death; safe enough to find a supportive place where I might grieve and heal.

It has only been in the last year, since I wrote a book about the experience of loss and received so many letters from non-twins, have I fully realized that twin bereavement can act as a magnifying glass for the universal issues of deep personal loss. People who face the loss of a child, of long and interdependent marriages, intertwined sibling relationships, and the loss of other deeply significant love bonds, can face an important identity crisis and a tidal waves of never-ending crippling grief.

It is with this understanding that I want to share my sense of hope for all deeply grieving people and my conviction that in healing from deep loss, one does not give up the love relationship one has experienced. Healing does not mean "moving on." It means being able to move forward with one's life. It means letting go of the loved person who no longer exists in the outer material world. It is in accepting the physical loss that we grieve. In expressing our feelings in some form, in remembering our relationship, we allow it to transform. Our grieving and bearing witness allows our love relationship to become available to us within our hearts -- and the precious memories of our loved one become available to us without the crippling pain.

One miracle of life is that love multiplies. I found that once I did my healing, the love I hold in my heart for and from Michael has opened rather than closed me to new and precious relationships. I have more and richer friendships, and have found after many ups and downs, a deeply committed love relationship in my marriage. My twin bond with Michael has also allowed me to accomplish things on my own that I, and others, never thought I could do. It gave me courage I didn't know I had.

While studying for a degree in Clinical Social Work at Columbia University in 1988, I was placed for clinical training at a single-room occupancy hotel, a five-floor walk-up in Harlem that had been turned into a residence for the homeless, most of whom were mentally ill. Besides interviewing clients, I led a therapeutic group for ten mentally disabled women. Their backgrounds were diverse and their histories sad, deprived, even tragic. Three were schizophrenic, three alcoholic, two bipolar, one blind with a personality disorder, and one a down-and-out old lady who had lost her memory in an accident. Slowly, over the year, the group had come to develop enough trust in me and in each other to share and discuss some of their difficulties. Their pain, their courage, their creative perseverance, and their depression, which sometimes freed itself as anger was deeply touching. I loved their outrageous humor. To commemorate our year's work together, they unanimously voted to go on an outing to the Botanical Gardens in Brooklyn. Our agency had no money for outings, so I asked permission from my supervisor and decided to put up the money myself. "Mary, you're nuts," she said. After two days of persistent appeals, she relented. I could go with the group if I assumed all of the responsibility. She would report me to the Columbia University School of Social Work if something went wrong.

God help me, I thought, on my way home from work. What have I done? How can I take ten mentally disturbed women anywhere for the day? I don't have the vaguest idea how to get to Brooklyn by subway or bus. What if Julie or Terry has a psychotic episode or Susan starts drinking or someone else wanders off? My worries multiplied and I felt out of breath. Then, something odd and miraculous happened. An image of Michael with a delighted look on his face popped into my mind. I could just tell he thought the plan was magnificent. I took several deep breaths. Something freed itself in my head. With everyone pulling in the same direction, of course it could work! At the next meeting, I told the ladies we had to prove to the agency that we could work together, find our way, and take care of each other. They caught on. It was us against them. We looked at the tasks involved. They volunteered. We went backwards and forwards. They shared, argued, compromised and gave in. One morning, we found we had agreed on a plan.

Our outing was a huge success. I was amazed how a common purpose and desired goal had brought these woman up and out of their emotional prisons and into a focused happy awareness and how it allowed them to experience the beauty and harmony of nature. I felt Michael on the trip trailing along in the back of my mind, joining me in watching blind, angry Sarah standing in silent wonder as her fingers traced the strong leaves and wild waxy flowers of a jungle plant. She helped us all make intimate connection to nature. At the main exhibit, the bold colorful patterns of the tulip beds offered us the boundaries that we needed for our lives and our group. These moments erased the colorless outer world that tried to keep us separated from ourselves and from each other. I thought of Michael, who had never been caught up by these separating forces. I felt our twinship and a rush of happiness as I realized a prayer from my healing journey had been answered. I had taken in and expressed Mike's ability to embrace life without hesitation and fear. I was living my own life and Michael was alive in me.

Read more about Michael and Mary and the book here