So meaningful to me

butterfliesYou know, it’s hard to figure out what to share here, and I know self promotion is rampant and I am as tired of it as you are, but sometimes I get emails from people who have found my book, #Replacement Child, and I am so moved I want to tell you all about it. Just this morning, I got this email from a woman in Ireland who found my book referenced online. This kind of email is why I wrote the book, and why I am glad I did.

Hi judy,
I have just ordered your book and can’t wait to read it.
For some reason last night when I lay in bed, I started to get upset about childhood issues. I decided to look up a child that comes after death of a sibling. Wow! One click on google and I realise something at the age of 36! I was a replacement child. I always knew my position in the family in that I came after death of a brother. But now suddenly I have an actual position that is recognised! I felt huge relief is all I can say but also amazement at how I did not realise that’s what I was , a replacement child! Feel a bit stupid too. I ordered your book and I am looking forward to reading it. I don’t feel so alone now.   I am married with kids but have always felt alone and different. Why am I telling you this?! Why email you?! I don’t know. You are a stranger who knows what I am feeling somewhat and after last night revelation I had to tell someone 🙂! Thank you,
B. in Ireland

I wrote back and asked her if I could share this, and she wrote:

Thanks for your reply. Yes of course you may use my mail for your blog. I actually feel found judy. It’s actually the single most exciting thing I feel to have happened for me. Struggling all my life with guilt of being on this earth in place of my brother. I don’t blame anyone, I always said, it’s just life , no ones fault. But the pain and unworthy feeling all my life has been crushing. Grateful to you and others for being there on Google , thank you from the bottom of my heart. When others verbalise another’s secret pain it is so liberating. Happy beyond words. Excited for a new chapter in life . Bless you X 

When a child dies and another is born: response to Yahoo article

Recently, I was interviewed following the news that a family just welcomed a new child into their family after tragically losing their six-year-old in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting two years ago. You can see the article here:   https://www.yahoo.com/parenting/when-a-child-dies-and-another-is-born-103051055797.html.

The reporter asked me some relevant questions about my own experience, being born after a sibling has died, that was the topic of my memoir, Replacement Child. It was also in relation to a new book coming out in the Spring of 2015, Replacement Children: Personal Journeys, co-written by Dr. Abigail Brenner, a San Francisco Psychiatrist, and Rita Battat Silverman. In full disclosure, the three of us have formed a unique friendship over the past few years, bonded by this very topic.

I thought the article was a good one, well written and sourced, and I was unprepared for the backlash in many of the comments on the Yahoo Parenting website. Most of the negative comments were in reaction to the very term ‘replacement child.’ I’ve known for quite some time that this term is offensive to some; especially parents who have lost a child and had a subsequent child. And, frankly, my own mother would have hated it if she had ever had a chance to weigh in on the title of my book. Sadly, she had passed away by that time. I also would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I have had misgivings about that title. Perhaps Healing Child may have been better? And, in my case, accurate to a degree. But not entirely.

The response on the website, over 450 comments at this writing, also highlights the reason why this psychological categorization has been so ignored for so long. Who wants to think they treat their child as a replacement, or that we may be one?

As the article points out, the term ‘replacement child’ was coined in the 60’s by husband and wife psychiatrist team Albert and Barbara Cain—not by me or Dr. Brenner or Rita Battat Silverman. The truth is that people like Rita and myself find great comfort in understanding the reasons behind our complicated issues of identity and self-worth; to be able to recognize our value as unique individuals. Our goal in writing our stories is to bring awareness to a sometimes-ignored psychological syndrome, for those who may find they identify with its characteristics, and for psychiatrists to be able to identify in their patients.

Following the death of their daughter when a plane crashed into their home, my parents didn’t have access to the kind of in-depth grief counseling that is available today, which would have prepared them more fully to welcome a new family member. It would have made the transition easier for them, and for me growing up.

No subsequent child need be a replacement of any kind. When a child is honored as a new, special individual, and parents have been able to adequately grieve for their previous loss, the new child can be the healing, joyful addition to the family that the parents intended.

A Psychoanalyst’s View of the Replacement Child

butterfliesRecently, I had the good fortune of speaking at length with psychoanalyst Kristina Schellinski about her in-depth work with replacement children in her practice.

Kristina Schellinski has an M.A. in Political Science and Literature. She worked for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in New York and Geneva from 1983-1998 and received her Diploma as Jungian Psychoanalyst and Psychotherapist from the C.G. Jung Institute in Zürich in 2002. She practices as a Jungian Analyst in Geneva, Switzerland. She is a training analyst and supervisor at ISAP (International School of Analytical Psychology), Zürich and a member of IAAP, AGAP, ASP and EAP, the Swiss and European Association of Psychotherapists, and a founding member of the Rencontres Jungiennes at Lavigny, Switzerland.

Judy: Thanks so much for sharing some of your insights with my readers. I understand that you have done a great deal of research on replacement children; children who are born after the death of another child in the family. Can you explain what brought you to the subject, and why you feel it’s an important topic to research and write about now?

K.S.: Being born after the death of another child may be a very special experience; depending on the circumstances, this may mean being born in the shadow of death of another human being, whereby one’s own life may slowly over a lifetime reveal itself as being overshadowed by the “presence of the absence” of the other.

Whether the joy of the newborn – or the sorrow of the one who was lost before, will be in the foreground of the consciousness of the parent, in the unconscious of the child there is the other who was not – and who she or he is to replace. Yet if she or he replaces that other child who died before, he or she is not really himself or herself…  This is the existential dilemma of the replacement child.

I have found many persons suffering from the replacement child syndrome, sometimes even in the second or third generation, i.e. those born to replacement children, or even their grandchildren, still may carry this special type of suffering in their soul.

I discovered this in the late stages of my training as an Analytical Psychologist at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zürich.

Judy: Do you have any personal experience as a replacement child, or with replacement children?

K.S.:  I was born six months after my baby-brother died of an undiagnosed appendicitis at the age of two. I knew this fact, growing up, but I only started to understand it meant for my own life and my relationships during my analysis when  training to become a psychoanalyst.  Research in the 1960 with children rescued from the Holocaust had first identified the specific suffering of the replacement child.

Judy: How about in your own practice? I understand that you have treated replacement children. Have you found similarities among them as to the issues they face? What are some of them that you find most often?

K.S.:  I have worked with many adult replacement children in my practice, and with children of replacement children and even with grandchildren of replacement children.  When we try to imagine the terrible loss the parents suffer when loosing a child, we can but begin to imagine the effect this may have on their attachment to a child born thereafter.

Judy: Do you find that parents are aware that they are having, or have had, a replacement child? And do they usually prefer the term ‘subsequent child?’

K.S.:  In my experience, it depends on the grieving process, whether the parents were able to have help and receive empathy and understanding and whether there was enough time between the loss of the child and a new child being born.  Sometimes, the grieving may have been so hard, that the awareness is not there, is dissociated or cut off together with the unbearable grief over the loss.  “Subsequent” child may be a term which recognizes that no human being can truly replace another one; each human being is unique. Yet, the term “subsequent” still evokes the presence of the other.

Judy: Can you talk about the spectrum of issues you see with replacement children? Some who may have more issues than others, and why there is that difference?

K.S.:  Each person, also each replacement child is unique, also in their suffering.  There may be some issues that are faced by many: such as the quest for their true identity, feelings of survivor’s guilt, difficulties in their own relationships, their attachment patterns… Their level of awareness, and the degree of consciousness of the parents may also play a role.

Judy: Are there measures that you believe parents can take to minimize any potential negative effects of having a child subsequent to another child’s death? What would you advise parents to look out for?

K.S.: First and foremost, the parents are advised to live through their grief as consciously and completely as humanely possible, hopefully assisted. Leave enough time between the loss of a child and a new conception.  Watch your fantasies and images, that they may not merge the two.  Do not name the new child with the same name, or any recall to the name of the lost child.  Be mindful of the unique new being that will be born and that is not to replace anyone – but just to develop to the fullest potential possible of his or her own new life.

Judy: Are there any surprises as yet with your research? Things about replacement children or their parents that you did not expect?

K.S.: What has surprised me in the beginning was the level of unconsciousness about this issue – of the replacement child or their parents; later on, what surprised me is that one can still find traces of this two, three generations later.

The most wonderful surprise – if I may call it that, is that the soul of a replacement child will try and find a way to resurrect, to come into being, to rediscover – from under the ashes of a replacement-like existence – the true originality which may once have been lost.  Seeing how an individual may rediscover the inalienable self that was once smothered by the others’ shadowy memory is like a miracle which never ceases to amaze me in practice.

Judy: What is your advice to those who discover that being a replacement child may have had a negative effect on their life?

K.S.: Do seek good counseling! Try to understand yourself, your life.  This is one promising way of discovering who you really are, of stepping into your own life.

An Interview That Made Me Think

Last week I had a conversation with Dr. Abigail Brenner, who blogs for Psychology Today, about her experiences with replacement children, and mine being one. Although I’ve written a great deal about the topic, our conversation brought up some new insights for me. You can read it on the Psychology Today site here.

 

January 22 Marks 61st Anniversary of New Jersey Plane Crash

Before the plane crash
Before the plane crash

This coming week, on January 22, marks the 61st anniversary of the plane crash in Elizabeth, New Jersey that killed my sister Donna and gravely injured my other sister, Linda. It is also the central incident of my memoir, Replacement Child, coming out in March from Seal Press.

As you might suspect, it’s a day that weighs heavily on me each year as I think about how the accident changed the lives of my family, and even led to my very existence. But, this year, I’ve been drawn to focus on the many other lives that were changed by this accident. It reminds me that, as in any tragedy –and there have been far too many recently, there are ramifications and ripples that are felt by many unseen victims for years afterward. Maybe for generations.

Every so often, I receive an email or letter from someone who has a connection to that long ago plane crash in 1952. The long tentacles of my family’s tragedy, a small one in the scheme of world events, continually fascinates me. Here’s one I  received just the other day:

My name is Douglas Carl Spriggs. I was born in Syracuse, N.Y., November 1952, following the death of my grandfather Carl U. Spriggs who died in the Jan 22 crash in Elizabeth. Carl had two children, my father Robert and my Aunt Betty both still living. I found your website while looking for information about the crash and want to say that your story touches me as that day in Elizabeth changed all our lives indeed. I wear Carl’s wedding band salvaged from the wreckage and will always wish I could have known him. Although much different than your experience, a replacement child of sorts myself.

Mr. Spriggs note also reminds me of how many different kinds of replacement children feel so identified, in addition to those who were born after the death of a sibling, as I was. I’ve heard from a twin whose sister died in utero, a man who felt he replaced his sister in the family after she was killed in an accident, and an adult who survived a car crash when his brother did not—to name just a few.

At one reading of a chapter of Replacement Child, a woman told me that her father was the sole survivor of the family who lived in the apartment above my family. That apartment was hit straight on by the plane; a mother and two children were killed. The father was not at home, and so, survived. The woman who approached me was also his daughter, with his second wife, who he married after the accident.

“He never told us he had a family before us,” she told me.

It took me a moment to register what she was telling me, but when I did, I took her hand and apologized for being the vehicle of that information.

I also heard from the granddaughter of a woman who died in the accident, who lived across the street from my family. I didn’t know that she suffered in the hospital for several days with burns before she died. Her uncle, who was 14 at the time, was also at the scene of the plane crash. He escaped being killed because he was sent out to the store just before the plane hit. This woman said that no one in her family would ever talk about the accident, and was grateful to find out more in my book. Their code of silence prevailed as it did in my family.

This year, January 22 falls on a Tuesday. The same day of the week the accident happened in 1952. I’ll light my yahrzeit candle, not only for my sister Donna who died that day, but also for all those who struggle with the tangled aftermath of tragic events.

Grieving, Subsequent Children, and the Replacement Child, After the Death of a Child

Abigail Brenner, M.D.Guest interview with Abigail Brenner, M.D.

I conducted this interview with Abigail Brenner, M.D., several weeks ago. It now seems to have a new relevance in light of the Newtown tragedy as I asked her the questions I so often hear concerning replacement children.

Dr. Brenner is a psychiatrist in private practice. A board certified psychiatrist in practice for more than 30 years, Dr. Brenner is a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. Her work has focused on understanding change and the challenges and opportunities afforded by change in relationship to major life transitions. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life, SHIFT: How to Deal When Life Changes, and co-author of The Essential Guide to Baby’s First Year (Alpha Books, a member of the Penguin Group).

Judy: Dr. Brenner, thanks so much for sharing some of your insights with my readers. I understand that you are doing research right now, along with your co-author, for a new book about replacement children; children who are born after the death of another child in the family. Can you explain what brought you to the subject, and why you feel it’s an important topic to research and write about now?

Dr. Brenner:  A very dear friend is a replacement child and through many conversations with her I’ve become aware of the many issues replacement children face. Since I’ve written several other books she thought it would be good to work together writing about replacement children. When I began to do research on the topic I realized how little exists on the topic.

My co-author has since been in touch with other replacement children, many as adults, and it became apparent that there are so many issues the replacement child has to face, often moving forward through their lives.

Judy: Do you have any personal experience as a replacement child, or with replacement children?

Dr. Brenner: I am not a replacement child and most of my initial understanding has come from the friend I just mentioned, plus the replacement children I’ve been in touch with since.

Judy: How about in your practice? Have you treated replacement children, or parents of replacement children? And, if so, have you found similarities among them as to the issues they face? What are some of them that you find most often?

Dr. Brenner: It’s interesting, but I don’t believe I’ve treated replacement children during my years of practice. I say, believe, because although I’ve known many people who have had “subsequent” children, I was not aware of the phenomenon of a child born to specifically replace a child who had passed away.

I use the term “subsequent” to describe a child born after another child in the family has died, but in this scenario, the parents want that child and have carefully thought out what having another child would mean for the family. That child is a unique individual unto themselves and is not meant to serve as a replacement for another child.

In interviews with several replacement children there appears to be a spectrum of issues and symptoms—which I talk about a little later on.

Judy: Do you find that parents are aware that they are having, or have had, a replacement child? And do they usually prefer the term ‘subsequent child?’

Dr. Brenner: Many people are totally unaware that they are having another child to make up for the loss of a child who has passed away. Many parents have been urged by their doctors and family to have another child to make up for the loss. When you search the literature about the profound grief that surrounds the death of a child, especially an infant who is stillborn or a child who dies shortly after birth, you find little understanding about the absolute necessity for the grieving process. Many people have another child and have not grieved for the lost child. Sometimes there is incomplete grief that lasts a lifetime.

Judy: Can you talk about the spectrum of issues you see with replacement children? Some who may have more issues than others, and why there is that difference?

Dr. Brenner: There appears to be a constellation of issues and symptoms. The experience of a replacement child seems to exist along a continuum—from the most extreme, to individuals barely aware that they are replacement children, to a larger population of individuals who recognize themselves in a middle-of-the-road position. We want to talk about all of these in our book.

Classically, parents often don’t complete the grieving process and continue to mourn the death of their child. The replacement child often feels inadequate to compete with the deceased child since they are often compared to an idealized version of the child who has died. To the parents, these children would have been perfect and brilliant in every way and the replacement child often feels the need to be perfect to be able to compete with their idealized sibling. Parents are often overprotective, controlling, and intrusive in the lives of children (especially replacement children) after they have suffered the loss of another child.

Replacement children sometimes don’t acknowledge their own need for help, have difficulty with guilt, are frequently aware of their parents’ vulnerability and attempt to take care of their parents’ fragile emotional state.

Judy: I have to say that I relate to all of what you’ve just said, as a replacement child, which I never thought of myself as until writing my memoir and facing many of those issues. Are there measures that you believe parents can take to minimize any negative effects of having a child subsequent to another child’s death? What would you advise parents to look out for?

Dr. Brenner: I would advise parents to take the time necessary to understand what has happened to them and to get professional help, if necessary, BEFORE they have a subsequent child. I would tell parents that grief is absolutely expected but that working through this process is essential for being able to move on—to never forget, but to be able to move on in life in a healthy way.

Judy: Are there any surprises as yet with your research? Things about replacement children or their parents that you did not expect?

Dr. Brenner: I am surprised that the therapeutic community, until relatively recently, has not understood the grieving process for parents who have lost a child.  I’m also surprised at the lack of research necessary to help parents work through their “unfinished business”— before they decide to become parents once again, for any subsequent child.

Judy: What is your advice to those who discover that being a replacement child may have had a negative effect on their life?

Dr. Brenner: Hopefully, with the publication of your memoir, Replacement Child, Judy, and our book, people will find explanations and resources for many issues they had not been aware of for much of their lives. Perhaps, you and I can put together some resources such as therapists that are familiar with and/or have treated replacement children and/or support groups for those who are searching for answers.

Approaching therapy (especially for those who have been in therapy previously when they were not aware) with the recognition that many factors may have influenced how they’ve lived their life up to now may help focus on those specific issues that may shed new light and allow for a new and broader perspective.

Judy: Thanks so much Abigail.

You may also be interested in Dr. Brenner’s latest blog addressing issues of siblings who have lost a brother or sister to the Newtown tragedy:

The Forgotten Mourners: Strategies to Help Bereaved Surviving Siblings

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-flux/201212/the-forgotten-mourners

Her website is: www.abigailbrenner.com

 

A Message of Hope for Newtown Parents

birdMy mother always told me that life was never the same for her after she lost her first-born child. Like the tragedy in Newtown that took 20 precious children, at the hands of a gunman surely struggling with his own demons, there was no sense to be made of my sister’s death. We can rail at gun control laws that are failing us, at a mother who thought she had a need for assault weapons in her home, at a system that may have failed a troubled young man.

But, I want to offer a measure of hope for the families of the lost children.

My parents lost their 7-year-old daughter in a tragic accident many years ago. Though it was a different circumstance, a plane crashing into their home, it was also the loss of a child through sudden tragedy. A loss that brought an abrupt and cruel end to the hopes and dreams any parent has for their child. At six and seven, children are seeing the joy in their everyday life and re-teaching their parents to see it too. We take that journey back with them, and they show us what we forget to treasure. Images of my own son at that age have come back to me over the last few days in hearing about the Newtown massacre, and seeing the photos of the children. I remember how excited he was to be learning about the world, making new friends, finding his own voice. Losing him would have been the end of my world, as it seemed for my parents, and as it seems for the parents in Newtown right now.

But, I learned an invaluable lesson from my parents’ journey through their grief. Even though they had no professional guidance, and floundered with how to go on, they did find their way. They also had another child at the time, a two-year-old who was injured in the plane crash and fire, and they rallied to nurse her back to health. It may have been a mixed blessing that they had no time to dwell on their loss of their older daughter, though I know she never left their hearts for the rest of their lives. And, in many ways, she was with them always. Later, they had another child—me.

I’m not suggesting platitudes for the grief stricken parents that life goes on. I will say that I learned from my parents’ story that we sometimes expect too much of ourselves when tragedy strikes. That ‘normal’ may have a new definition. That grieving has it’s own timetable for every individual, and we each need to give each other permission to grieve in our own way.

My mother struggled with her new reality, I know, for a very long time. But, eventually she smiled. She laughed with her husband and her children again. And, though my parents grieved in very different ways, they found each other again and were able to build new family memories.

Prayers that parents in Newtown find their way home.

“Flight” Put Me in the Cockpit of 6780

My parents' home just after the plane crashI had a visceral reaction to the beginning of the superb film, Flight, while the pilot (Denzel Washington), struggled to keep his plane in the air after a mechanical failure. I’m sure many moviegoers felt the tension and related to the panic of the passengers, but I believe something else was also at work here for me personally.

Spoiler alert for the rest of this post, in case you haven’t yet seen this terrific movie.

I thought immediately of all the people who would be devastated by the crash, by the deaths of however many people might die in the plane or on the ground. About the long aftermath of any tragedy in which children, parents, wives and husbands are killed. When they are missing from their families forever. When those left behind try to make sense of the senseless, just as my mother and father did when a plane crashed into their home and killed their eldest daughter.

Watching that plane go down in Flight, I couldn’t help but think of the plane crash that killed my sister Donna when it nose-dived into the house next door and ripped the roof off of the apartment where my family lived. Surely, Captain Reid, the real-life pilot of that flight, 6780 from Buffalo to Newark in 1952, went through similar anguish depicted in the film, along with his passengers. He was unable to land, or find a clearing that would spare lives on the ground. He lost his life. All the souls on board were killed, along with my sister and others on the ground. But, he was able to steer clear of a school, saving the 300 students still inside that afternoon. We’ll never know if that was a conscious decision, but I like to think it was.

As Denzel Washington soared over the heads of the gathering in the field in the movie, I thought of the split second decisions that save lives, or forfeit them. The teacher that kept his class after school so that he didn’t arrive home to his apartment above my parents until after the plane had decimated the building. My mother’s decision to send home the girls meeting at her apartment a half hour earlier than usual. And the fateful choice my sister made to come home from school an hour earlier than planned.

Flight was, of course, about much more than a plane crash. It was about a life that was careening out of control, speeding toward inevitable implosion that could only be stopped by facing the truth.

Lincoln’s Replacement Children

There is so much to talk about after seeing Lincoln this weekend, but since I have my Replacement Child lenses adjusted, I can’t help but focus on one scene in the film that touched on Lincoln as a husband and father.

In the scene we discover that Abe and Mary lost a child to illness as Abe rails at Mary for her extended grieving, and she in turn admonishes him for putting their oldest son, Robert, in harm’s way by allowing him to join the ranks of the Union soldiers.  When her grieving over the death of their son became too prolonged, in Lincoln’s view, he had apparently threatened Mary with having her committed to an asylum, (using the vernacular of the film). She tells him that if Robert dies in the war, he had better plan to really put her away, not just threaten it.

Two things about this scene, so beautifully rendered by Steven Spielberg and brought to life by Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field, struck me as I watched this relatively small scene in the epic film. First, Lincoln’s admission that he couldn’t allow his wife’s grieving to go on, because he couldn’t allow it in himself. And, that he feared he could be swallowed by that grief every day. But he went on with his daily routine, we are to assume, including his legendary presidential duties. His wife’s continued grieving, then, was an affront to his daily struggle to contain his own grief and fed his anger at her.

I saw that kind of difference in grieving, between men and women, and between individuals, in my own parents. As I wrote Replacement Child, I had to dig back into the evidence of my parents’ behaviors soon after the death of their eldest daughter, and then throughout the rest of their lives. As Mary Lincoln in the film showed, the grieving for a child really never ends. My own father went back to his work as soon as he could, never speaking of his lost daughter and going on with life by tucking his grief away. One of the few times I heard him utter her name was as he told me of his wishes for his own eventual remains, “to be cremated like my girl.” It was the only time I ever saw him cry. For my mother, she nearly disappeared into depression until she did have another child—who might be called a replacement child.

The other part of this relatively small detail brought out in the film was the realization that Mary’s other two children became somewhat replacement children after the loss of the other. She pinned her hopes on the other two, and knew she might not survive another child’s death. That, I reasoned, was why her response to Robert’s going to war was so intense. It’s a version of replacement children that I have not explored before this, that seems so obvious now—that it’s not just the subsequent child born after the death of a child that is a replacement child, but the remaining children that take on that role as well.