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.

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