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

Her website is:


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.

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.


Replacement Children You May Know

Replacement child Vincent van Gogh
Replacement child Vincent van Gogh

Last week we talked about the first reference to a replacement child in recorded history possibly being Seth (or Shet in Hebrew) who replaced Abel, who was killed by Cain. Talk about complicated family history. In Genesis 4:25, Eve refers to his birth:

“God has granted me other seed in place of Abel. . .”

And God said to Cain: (Genesis 4:10)

“The voice of your brother’s blood crieth unto Me from the ground.”

Interesting to note some of the other replacement children from history:

  • Solomon
  • Napoleon III
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Salvador Dali
  • Rainer Maria Rilke
  • Sabina Spielrein
  • Françoise Dolto
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • James Barrie (creator of Peter Pan)
  • Eugene O’Neill (my favorite playwright)
  • Carl Gustav Jung

I’m heartened to see that some of these replacement children are creative stars, and include some of my favorite artists. It makes me wonder if the search for a unique identity, a trait of the replacement child, tends to express itself through art. Apparently my brethren can be credited for giving us some of the great pieces of literature, theater and visual art. Not to mention Carl Jung’s quest for understanding the human condition.

This puts a different spin on being a replacement child and makes me pretty proud to join the ranks.

I’ll be looking at more of the historical references to the replacement child in the coming weeks along with sharing more of the research that helped me write Replacement Child.

Let me know if you know of any other famous replacement children, or if you are one yourself. I would love to start a conversation here. Just leave a comment using the link at the top left of this post.

Also, I’ll be adding to the links on the right navigation of this page for other references you may be interested in.

More later—


A #Mother Rant: Getting through, taking help, letting go

We build our world around our children, many of us mothers, and somewhere around their 13th birthday it dawns on us that they will leave. Which, of course, is our goal. I heard a friend of mine recently lament, “what will happen when my raison d’etre goes to college in a few years?” The short answer to that question is, you will cry. Then he will call you with a crisis. Of the heart. Of the wallet. And he will need you. And you will sigh and take your place again as the mother and FedEx him a brisket.

I remember when my son was an infant and motherhood was exhilarating, exhausting and a trial – sometimes all in the same day. A wise older woman told me that I would be fine.

“Just when you think you can’t stand a stage they are going through, it will end,” she said. “And the surprising part will be that you will miss it.”

Formerly of the 47% — and proud

Having been a single mother for a good many years, those childhood stages included finding good, affordable daycare so that I could work. I interviewed daycare centers for weeks, trying to find one that I felt confident would provide a safe, nurturing environment for my three-year-old. When I found a local center where the people seemed caring, organized and qualified, I was afraid to ask the cost. I tentatively sat in the daycare director’s office and fidgeted with the tassel on my handbag while he looked over my application. He was a big man with a dark beard, a soft voice, and kind eyes.

At the time, I held a part-time job at a college, writing for their alumni magazine, and I also published a small town newspaper. The newspaper kept me up until the wee hours most nights doing layout on the tiny screen of my Mac Plus. Believe me, I couldn’t afford many of the daycare options I preferred. Some were over half of my weekly take home pay. When the director looked up and smiled, I was prepared for a figure that would send me quickly out the door.

“We have a subsidized program that is geared specifically for you,” he said. “It will be $12 a week.”

When he saw my tears welling up, the director shoved a box of tissues toward me, which I gratefully grabbed. That government program saved us. It meant I could work a full day at the college, something they had recently asked me to do. I didn’t feel like a victim. Getting help when I needed it didn’t stop me from holding down two jobs and pursuing a career that would eventually support us. I never, in fact, pursued additional support after the one year I needed assistance to keep my son in daycare, and have always been grateful for that leg up. The experience gave me a perspective that I would not have had otherwise, that perhaps is impossible to have unless you have been in a similar situation. The truth I learned is that sometimes people just need a helping hand in life.

Our shared experience of digging out of a difficult time may be one reason my son chose a profession where he helps people who are in dire circumstances; but I know it often breaks his heart when he can’t fix their lives.

Lately I’ve been thinking how our goals for our children can conflict in some cataclysmic ways. I always hoped my boy would become a caring, sensitive and compassionate man. At 24, he is all of those things, and because of that, I know he is set up for pain. Not to mention that he will eventually lose me too. Which I know, and he doesn’t yet believe.

Face it. We can never win at this mother thing.

I have this vision of myself looking down from heaven (hopefully) and trying to still step in to ease my kid’s life in some way. Whisper in his ear while he sleeps that he should eat a good breakfast, dress warm and take his vitamins. Maybe jolt him from falling asleep at the wheel on a late night home. It won’t be a haunting, per se, just a motherly presence. I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to let go even then.

End of #Summer Reminiscence

August takes me back to remembering the last dog-days of summer in the past when I would be scurrying from store to store to find that perfect backpack for my son, the cool sneakers he would wear, a new pair of jeans.

By the time he hit Junior High I was wistful for his elementary school years when I could suit him up in anything I liked and he would be pleased and happy for the new duds and supplies. Excited even to pack his mini backpack with all the pencils and erasers and rulers it could carry. Ready to get on with it and learn! My industrious little guy.

I was sure he sat in the front of the room and was riveted by his teacher’s every word. A parental fantasy. A delightful delusion while it lasted. Until I was called in to school one day and told that my angel jabbers on with his pal all day to the distraction of the entire class—and would I have a word with him? Hmmm, that put a different spin on things didn’t it? Well, I mused, heredity must be respected. He was after all MY son.

Every end of summer at every age was its own special journey into his psyche. I would find out where he thought he stood, and where he wanted to be, in his world. Who did he want to emulate? Why did he NEED those Sketcher sneakers this year? Or the year he insisted on the brand of jeans I could never find? And then came the backlash year when nothing could have a logo on it.  Not a shirt or a backpack or a cap.

By high school I would buy clothes without him at my own peril.  Most often we would be returning the item for something more suitable to his image of himself.  I could miss the mark by a month or even a week.

“But didn’t you like these shirts last week when we bought you one?”

“That was last week, mom. Really.”

Ok, I may exaggerate.

By college, his serious commitment to the environment also played out in his wardrobe. Any shopping we did together was at second- hand stores.  I learned that you could buy a perfectly good shirt for $2.00. To his credit, the clothing budget was slashed to a fraction of what it was even when he was seven.

Now, my boy is on his own. Living in Brooklyn and getting by on a social worker’s salary. I keep tabs on his style choices, which are still evolving, and are still a window into his image of himself. Picking out the right shirt, the way he wants to spend his days, the ways he wants to help people, it all seems part of the intricate weave he is creating for his life.



#Passover Kvetch – In My Mother’s Memory

I made haroseth for my Passover dinner today, and in memory and honor of my mother, I kvetched.

“Why do the Jews have to do everything the hard way!” I clearly remember her bellowing as she chopped the apples and walnuts into tiny pieces. “If the men were doing this, it would be some kind of whipped topping, I swear.”

The first time I made my own Passover meal was when my son was three. We had been celebrating both Easter and Passover, in deference to his father’s religion.  We gleefully decorated eggs, welcomed the Easter bunny with his requisite candy baskets and then used the colored eggs for our semi-Passover table when the timing was right between the holidays.

Although we celebrated Passover with my parents in the past, this would be our first holiday on our own—just my son and me. I had just joined a synagogue for the first time in my adult life and I felt a pull to give my offspring a religious base. God knows we needed some kind of anchor. My parents and sister and her family lived far away from us, I was newly divorced, and was looking for a kind of surrogate family. I called my parents for guidance and was sent a detailed list of foods I could serve for our Passover meal along with a Maxwell House haggadah with my father’s dogged eared pages and notes in the margins.

“I have no idea what you mean, Dad,” I said when I called him.

“Just do the parts of the service I marked, or you won’t be having dinner until midnight,” he advised.

The only part I remembered from my childhood was how to say the four questions in the service reserved for the youngest member of the family. I knew them in Hebrew by heart and couldn’t wait to show that off to my little boy. He was not impressed. He kept asking when he could eat a hard-boiled egg. That was the one question I didn’t know the answer to.

It was a lot for me to take in, but I was determined to do this right, even if our Passover was for just us two. I felt the responsibility to be a role model for my son. He would start Sunday school soon, and this was his initiation into our religion.

As I prepared the meal of matzo ball soup, chicken, gefilte fish, hard boiled eggs, haroseth –and set the Passover plate with the required shank bone, horseradish, parsley—I realized why it optimally takes two people to accomplish this holiday.  How was I supposed to be preparing the meal, saying the prayers and serving the meal at the same time?  It was a juggling act for an octopus.

By the second year, though, I had mastered the shortcuts I needed, and slowly enlisted my kid’s help as he got older. We were never extremely strict, but we always had the flavor of the holiday. Now that he is in his twenties, and our Passovers have changed quite a bit, I am sentimentally grateful for those special times together. Somehow his presence in my life was enough to bring me back to the fold and allow me to connect to my ancestry through age-old tradition and observance. Not to mention food.

Which brings me back to my mother’s tradition. Chop, kvetch, boil, kvetch, mix, kvetch, bake, kvetch. Then sit back and enjoy your family and be grateful for them, and all that came before them.

Happy Passover and Easter to all.