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.