January 8, 2011, started out like any other day on Florida State University’s campus for sophomores Amy Cowie and her twin sister, Ashley.
Although the identical twin sisters had different majors—Amy was pre-dental while Ashley was majoring in interior design—the two did their best to take every pre-requisite class together that they could. They lived together in a dorm room on campus and had rearranged the room when they moved in so their beds could be closer together.
They joined the same sorority and shared the same circle of friends. They were rarely seen apart.
“It was the most unconditional love,” said Amy Buckley, 29, whose maiden name is Cowie. “She is my literal other half. It’s your DNA. You’re just walking with somebody and you wouldn’t even have to talk – you just knew what that person was thinking and feeling. It was just a beautiful, perfect relationship.”
Like many twins, the two were often mistaken for the other, but each had her own unique personality. Amy describes her twin sister as pretty, funny and smart, but the biggest thing that comes to mind, when Amy thinks of Ashley, is her compassion.
“She was very observant, listening to you and taking in what you were going to say,” Amy said of Ashley. "She would see the person that other people didn’t see. She really wanted to help people and to make a difference and make everyone feel included.”
On January 8, the twin sisters celebrated new sorority members’ initiation at a banquet dinner and afterward they went with a handful of friends to hang out at Amy’s boyfriend’s apartment, inside a fraternity house at Florida State.
‘There was an accident’
While they were at the fraternity apartment complex, Ashley told Amy that she would be right back. Ashley walked down the hall to Amy’s boyfriend’s room to use his restroom. She opened the door to find him sitting at his desk fiddling with a shotgun he owned.
The second she entered the room, the loaded gun went off. The bullet hit Ashley in the chest and killed her instantly.
Amy’s boyfriend and a friend ran to Amy, she recalls, and told her, “There was an accident.”
“I ran down the hallway,” she recalled. “That door opened. It was very smoky, very cloudy. It smelled very strong of fire. I saw her legs. I went and looked at her and she had a glazed look over her eyes.”
Amy recounted the tragic events of that evening in detail, from her screams for 911 to attempting to perform CPR on her twin.
“I was on my knees and I was yelling for them to call 911,” she said. “Then I tried to give her CPR. I know this is graphic, but blood literally bubbled into my mouth. I knew that I wasn’t going to do anything.”
Amy’s friends called 911 and moved her into another room away from Ashley until help got there. She recalls sitting on a bed, covered in her twin sister’s blood.
“I was sitting on the bed and a cop was sitting with me,” Amy said. “I didn’t want to look. I was just screaming, ‘No don’t tell me. Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me.’ Another cop came into the room. I looked at the cop out of the corner of my eye and he looked at the guy and shook his head ever so slightly like, ‘No, she’s not going to make it.’”
Amy continued to sit in that room with the police, while they moved Ashley's body out of the building.
“I kept yelling at them to send me to the hospital and to medicate me because I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Amy said. “I had my eyes closed because I was so afraid I was going to see a body bag.”
Becoming a ‘twinless twin’
After the accident, Amy left Florida State University and moved back in with her parents in her hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.
The grief was all-consuming and paralyzing.
“It’s like you’re standing outside your body. It doesn’t feel real. I mean, it was so exhausting,” Buckley said. “It wasn’t even day by day at that point. It was hour by hour.”
“I would go days and be like, ‘Oh, God, it’s been three days since I talked to her. Now it’s been a week. I never went an hour without talking to her. I’d only slept in a room by myself a handful of times.”
Hearing the word “twin” would trigger her, she said.
To help cope with the grief, Amy began extensive therapy and began taking medication.
Her therapist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder and helped her get the proper treatments she needed. Amy says most importantly, her therapist encouraged her to create an action plan for her future and give her hope on leading a fulfilling life down the road.
“I would hold onto my session with her, and I knew I had to just make it a few more days and then I would see her again,” Amy said. “I just had to make it to that next appointment.”
While dealing with this initial grief, Amy was also having to deal with something else: a trial. The state of Florida tried the man who shot Ashley, Amy's ex-boyfriend, on multiple charges – including manslaughter. The state attorneys were fighting to give him 20 years – one for every year of Ashley’s life.
Amy and her family attended each day of the trial – reliving the events of that January 9, 2011, morning. Amy took the stand at the trial and delivered an emotional victim testimony.
“I didn’t want to wash her blood out of my hair because it was all I had left of her,” Amy testified. "I became a twinless twin."
On June 15, 2012, a judge sentenced the man who shot Ashley to 20 years in prison and 10 years' probation.
“It felt like we truly got justice for her,” Amy said.
'You will always hold your grief'
Now, nearly 10 years after losing her twin sister, Amy has learned a lifetime of lessons on grief and feels it’s her mission to begin to help other people.
While the grief will always be there, she said, the way she has learned to live with it has changed.
Grief is "like a hamster wheel in the back of my head just going, going, going and it never stops,” Amy says. “It’s always going to be there. But what changes is you.”
“You learn how to feel better,” she added. “You know how to cope better, you know your triggers. You learn how to live a better life with that grief.”
Amy, who is now married with two children, says she has a “beautiful life,” but she acknowledges that it took hard work to get to where she is today.
“I worked my butt off to get to where I am. I kept putting one foot in front of the other,” Amy said. “I was determined, no matter what, that I was going to make my life happy no matter what happens to me.”
“I had a different idea of what my future would look like when I still had a twin on this Earth," she added. "But I’ve opened up this new jar and I can still be happy and I can still have a family and it’s beautiful.”
Helping others turn lemons into lemonade
Amy started her own grief blog, which she named “Lemonade Instead,” hoping to create a safe space for all types of grievers to share their loss and trauma.
“I feel like it would be a waste if I never tried to help people with the grief in the trauma and the experiences that I've gone through,” she said. “It's what I know about and what I’m good at.”
“I never felt like I had somewhere where I could talk about my grief but I could also talk about how I could make my life into something positive,” she said.
Her writing offers advice to both people who are grieving and those who are dealing with a grieving loved one.
For those who are grieving, Amy offers three key tips.
1. There’s no direct path:“It’s up to you. There’s no book for it. There’s no timetable.” Amy says. “I think the biggest thing is you have to be confident in your mental health and know that whatever you want or need is okay.”
2. You don’t have to explain yourself and your pain:“The big thing for me was realizing how I chose to grieve doesn’t change my love for that person or my experience with the person or their impact on the world,” Amy said. “You don’t need to explain yourself. You don’t need to feel guilty for going to a restaurant. Guilt comes from viewing how the majority of other people grieve, but that doesn’t mean that’s how you have to.”
3. Do things that make you feel good:Amy said she tried several different ways of grieving before finding a therapist and treatment planned that worked for her. When grieving, it’s important to do what’s best for you at that time. “You learn how to make sure that you have those happier days more so than those sad days,” Amy said.
For those who have a friend or loved one who is grieving, Amy gives three points of advice.
1. Know who the griever is:“Ask them to guide you through it,” Amy said. “Each person is going to be different. Know your audience. Ask them to tell you if things you say make them feel bad or good. Ask them, What do you need from me and what do you want from me?”
2. There are no right words – but there are words that can help:“There are no right words. If there were I’d be shouting them from the rooftops,” Amy said. Amy says to use words that don’t diminish or compare a person’s pain with yours. Also, it’s important not to overpromise support. Here are some of her suggestions:•Instead of “I’m here for you. Call me anytime.” Try “I will support you the best way I can.”•Instead of “I understand your pain,” try “I don’t understand your pain. You’re important to me and so is your pain.”
3. Don’t take anything personally: “Don’t be offended if the griever doesn’t respond to messages. It’s just one more thing for them to worry about,” Amy said. “Your relationship with that person is going to have to be a give. You’re not taking from that relationship at this time. You have to give and there will be a time when it’s a two-way street again.”
Amy hopes by opening up about these aspects of grief, trauma and mental health that she can ultimately help other people navigate their grief and put one foot in front of the other to a fulfilling life.
“We’re all going to have these lemons at some point in our life. Life throws us horrible things,” Amy said. “And it really comes down to choosing what we’re going to do with it.”
Editor’s note: Shannon McLellan attended Florida State University with Amy and Ashley Cowie and remains a friend of Amy Buckley.