Thursday, January 25, 2018

Kids and Grief: How do you make a Rainbow Baby not Feel Like a Replacement?


A few months ago I wrote about how Andrew has redeemed "boy things" for me. After Jack died, all things boy, whether the clothing aisles at Target, a Lego ad, or seeing boys of any age, brought much pain. Now, I can go to the boys' department and look for a good deal again, not cry for a stage of Jack's that I miss, or that he never got to. It's easier to look forward when fully engaged in the day-to-day needs of parenting a flesh and blood toddler, who is glued to my hip much of the time.

A reader who considered himself an unwitting and unwilling "replacement child" for his dead  brother shared how difficult it was growing up under the shadow of the sibling he never met. His pain was compounded by the fact that they shared a birthday, so even what should have been the most special day each year for him was linked to his brother and the reminder of the depths of his parents' grief and sadness. He considered it selfish for parents to try to have another child after loss because of the heavy baggage that child would always bear, and he recommended therapy rather than procreation as a way to find redemption.

I so appreciate his honesty and insight into the complexity of being a child who comes into a family after a sibling has died. He has been there; I haven't. And I want to honor his experience.

His comment also gave voice to some things I'd been wondering:

How do you make a rainbow baby not feel like a replacement?

How do you help your child grapple with the complicated realization that will likely come at some point, that had a sibling not died, he or she might not have been born?

How do you focus on the living child here, while honoring the memory of the child who died? 

Andrew is already going to have the oldest mom and dad around. His sister will be out of the house by the time he is 3 years old, so instead of being born into a noisy, boisterous family, he may have a childhood that feels more like Donaldson2.0 than what I would have chosen for him.

But he's here. Right now. And he's awesome. How will I help him with our family's less than traditional story?

Here are 5 ideas:

1) Let Andrew know that we always wanted a 3rd child, which is true, even though we never acted on it because life got in the way. His arrival may have been a lot later than we envisioned, but it was right on time, so that Andrew would be Andrew.

2) Make sure he knows he is not responsible for my healing or my happiness. Yes, having a baby brings life and promise and optimism, but it is not Andrew's job to fill me up or take away my grief. That's too much responsibility for a child to bear. I have myself, God, friends, and professionals to help me. He can be a kid.

3) Share about big brother Jack when it seems natural to do so, but don't deify him, and don't compare. Be sure to mention Jack's quirks and struggles as well as what came easily to him. Celebrate Andrew's uniqueness, his interests, his strengths.

4) Don't feel the need to bring Jack into every single conversation, but don't avoid mentioning him either. Gauge this on Andrew, just as we have with Margaret. Remember Jack is in paradise, and there is no way for me to let him down, disappoint him, or leave him out. There is no greater cheerleader for our family than Jack, so he would want us to find a rhythm that works for us.

5) Acknowledge Andrew when he feels like he is missing out, whether he grieves having siblings in the house with him, having younger parents, or whether it's about losing Jack, specifically. Let him know it's okay to grieve, it's okay to be angry, and it's okay to be happy.



What would you add? Are you parenting after loss, or are you, yourself, a "rainbow baby?" I think this is an important conversation, and I'd love to hear from you!


If you are in grief, or have a friend who is grieving, please consider giving them my book:









20 comments:

Kirsten said...

Interesting post, thanks for sharing your thoughts. This is something I have struggled with. I have a baby who is terminally ill and we have plans to add to our family in the near future. I wonder if it is selfish and unfair for us to knowingly bring a baby into what will be a grieving household. On the one hand, we always wanted more than one child, so this child would always have been part of the plan, but on the other hand, they will be coming to fill a hole in our hearts that came with knowing our time with our firstborn would be short. It's a very hard situation to be in. I really liked your point about it being impossible for Jack to feel left out, so there is no need to feel guilt about however you integrate him into Andrew's life.

Stephanie Abdon Fulton said...

Thanks for posting this! My baby is not a rainbow baby, but my husband and I were blessed with him after having 4 kids between us, a daughter-in-law and two grandbabies. It was definitely hard to tell our older kids, so I can empathize somewhat with you. My stepdaughter was initially kind of upset that he will (hopefully) be raised with 2 parents while hers were divorced. My ex has also made my son feel like I have replaced him, which is another story all together but makes me grumpy.

I was also born to a mom who had been widowed young and had me a bit later. My siblings and their paternal extended family always accepted us and I am actually much closer to them than my dad's family. I feel like I am kind of a rainbow baby in that sense, since my mom lost her beloved husband and had me after finding love again.

Thanks for sharing :)

StarGazer said...

I guess I'm a "rainbow baby", (albeit I'm 44 years old, tomorrow!).
My brother, born 4.5 years before me, only lived 4 days. I have even more in common with Andrew as I also have a much older sister (even bigger gap: 18 years) and my parents were much older than was typical at the time (42 & 46).
There was a time in my childhood I thought my dad was disappointed that I wasn't a boy (& maybe he was but he explained years later that he was more surprised, his family was boy-heavy). I think some of that was having to have something to be angst-y about though, if it wasn't that maybe I would have found something else.
I always knew about David, his picture was always there, he was another member of the family & very much my brother, just not with us. I grew up like an only child as my sister married (for the first time....) the year I was born. My parents were amazing at realising that some things were necessarily different about our childhoods (& VERY different from their own). I never felt like a replacement, I guess I felt more like a happy bonus. I acknowledge that maybe if he'd lived I wouldn't be here but maybe I would & I am & they were always grateful for that. I wonder about him still, ponder about what things would be different & how but it's just another piece of the jigsaw that makes up my family.
My kids (son -with my brother's name as his middle name -& daughter) have likewise always known about him & my dh sometimes jokes about how David might have scared him off.
My parents are elderly now & until recently both lived with us (sadly, my mum now needs round the clock nursing care) if that gives you an idea of how close we are (it wasn't guilt that drove us to ask them to live with us, it was live) & they have been the most amazing grandparents (the other set of grandparents are a generation younger & much less involved). My kids would do anything for them.
I feel sure that Andrew will be fine, not least because you are already thinking about this & considering how to do this right. No parenting is easy but this is an extra consideration that we all wish you didn't have.
It isn't always awful being the rainbow baby, sometimes you get to feel like the pot of gold x

Anonymous said...

First, that photo of Andrew is beyond adorable!

Second, I honestly think that every family's situation is different. I am a rainbow baby (my parents had a son, then lost a baby girl during my mom's pregnancy at 17 weeks, then they had me). I also have a rainbow baby myself, following a miscarriage. I honestly think it's hard to compare the situations in my family, to situations where people have lost children. Having a miscarriage was very painful and difficult, and I know my parents situation was even worse than mine, but I cannot fathom the grief of losing a child, whether they are 5 days old, 5 months old, 5 years old, or 12 years old. That to me is an entirely different situation and a much, much deeper grief.

I have been following you and your family ever since I saw, "Help Margaret Meet Justin Bieber" on facebook many years ago. I was beyond thrilled when I found out you were pregnant, and while I knew you all would be so happy with a boy or a girl, I was so happy you were expecting a boy. Your blog post about being able to go to Target without crying was so beautifully written. It made sense. There is no doubt in my mind that Andrew is a gift from Jack and that you all love and adore him. I am so, so happy for your family, and happy to see you all happy.

I have been following the story of a local family who tragically lost their baby and I can tell that they are still feeling unimaginable pain and grief (how could they not?) When I read their posts I wish so much that they could be blessed with another baby. While I know no one could ever replace the child they lost, I would think that it would have to help them in some way emotionally to experience life with a baby again, and to have something positive come out of something so, so devastating.

I used to follow two women online (one who lost a girl during her pregnancy and one who lost her toddler daughter) who went on to have one (or more) boys. They made it very clear on their blogs that they could never fully enjoy life again if they did not have girls. Not to replace the girls they lost, but so that they could experience life with daughters. The comments they made about their sons (one admitted that when she was pregnant she didn't think she would want or be able to love her son, which of course didn't turn out to be true) and then the comments they have made since about their daughters and how now they can be happy, because they have them, didn't sit well with me. I completely understand them feeling that way, and perhaps sharing those feelings with a loved one or friend, but putting it out in the world for their daughters to read one day, and their sons, made me upset. Both as a happy boy mom and as a rainbow baby who was perhaps the girl my parents longed for after losing one. I felt their posts put far too much pressure on their daughters to fill this "perfect daughter" role. I had to stop following both of them. I'm so happy they both found peace and happiness by having daughters, but wish they would consider the feelings of their readers who may be in the same situation, but didn't get the gender they longed for. The message was almost, "If I don't get to have a daughter after losing one, I'll never be truly happy. If I get to have a girl, then I have a chance." I don't think that's fair to anyone involved. Of course, I have not walked in their shoes. Perhaps had my parents never had me, they would have always longed for the girl they lost. We'll never know. I think every baby is a blessing.

Andrew is so, so lucky to have you, your husband, and Margaret, and a big brother watching over him in heaven. And you all are so lucky to have him. Hugs!

Theresa said...

I love how thoughtful you are. I mourn the reason why you are so thoughtful on this particular topic. I have a friend that is a burdened adult rainbow baby. I would love to ease her burden and look forward to hearing more from you. ♡

Linda Lochridge Hoenigsberg said...

Hi Anna. This is not at all the same thing but I had two children who were very different in learning styles. One was registered as mentally gifted. The other had disabilities. Instead of posting the achievements of either in full view, I made special scrapbooks for each of them and got my daughter (learning disabled) into things my son could not do as well (art, music). I would tell her, “ You’re the only person on our family who can do this or that.” I’m wondering if there are things you can let Andrew know about himself that make him very different from his brother, and from the rest of the family, and let him know how special those gifts are.

Maggie May said...

Anna I have been reading your blog for years. This entry just reminds me of why I started. The way you embrace and allow for the faults of yourself, your husband, your kids, your family dynamic, and others, while still seeking always to love, is unfortunately unique. I think you are amazing.

Mary Walsh said...

Andrew is so blessed to have very thoughtful and intentional parents.

Susie - Walking Butterfly said...

Such wise insights here. I have had the same concerns and questions ever since first hearing the term "rainbow baby". It bothered me for these same reasons. Your little one is blessed to be in such a wise and thoughtful family.

Suzy Soro said...

My grandparents lost three children to diphtheria during World War II. All girls. One died when she was 5 yrs old. The next child born, also a girl, had a similar name to the 5 year old. She became the pet and my mom, the oldest, always felt neglected and angry. My gramdmother never mentioned the deceased children and my sister and I were told never to ask questions about them

Anonymous said...

I was born after my parents lost their third child - who was stillborn. I didn't think this post was 'about me' until I read the sentence "had a sibling not died, he or she might not have been born". That's something I struggled with as a (pre)teenager, quite a lot. My parents hardly ever spoke about losing their child; it was a different time with different 'norms' regarding pregnancy and infant loss (e.g., they didn't name or bury the child). I also think it was how they coped. I respect that they didn't make this child -who, unlike Jack, was never part of family life- part of everyday conversation, but I do wish that they had made us feel it was okay to ask/talk about it. However, they clamb up when the topic is brought up, so I only tried when I was pregnant myself and had to know if there was relevant medical information such as possibly hereditary risks. So I think your openness may very much help Andrew one day!

My father did once reply - when I was a pre teen and mentioned that I would not have been born if this older sibling had survived his birth - that that wasn't necessarily true, since he and my mom wanted /at least/ three children, but possibly more. Although I think that that was a slight embellishment of the truth, that rare comment on the subject helped me greatly. So your no. 1 item is very important from my experience.

I think your attention and sensitivity to the subject already makes 95% of the difference, Anna! So way to go.

By the way, I also lived as an 'only child' at home for quite a few years. It was different from my siblings' teenage years, but not better or worse. So don't worry too much about that. Andrew will get the benefits of 'being an only child' /and/ of having siblings!

A said...

I was born after my parents lost their third child - who was stillborn. I didn't think this post was 'about me' until I read the sentence "had a sibling not died, he or she might not have been born". That's something I struggled with as a (pre)teenager, quite a lot. My parents hardly ever spoke about losing their child; it was a different time with different 'norms' regarding pregnancy and infant loss (e.g., they didn't name or bury the child). I also think it was how they coped. I respect that they didn't make this child -who, unlike Jack, was never part of family life- part of everyday conversation, but I do wish that they had made us feel it was okay to ask/talk about it. However, they clamb up when the topic is brought up, so I only tried when I was pregnant myself and had to know if there was relevant medical information such as possibly hereditary risks. So I think your openness may very much help Andrew one day!

My father did once reply - when I was a pre teen and mentioned that I would not have been born if this older sibling had survived his birth - that that wasn't necessarily true, since he and my mom wanted /at least/ three children, but possibly more. Although I think that that was a slight embellishment of the truth, that rare comment on the subject helped me greatly. So your no. 1 item is very important from my experience.

I think your attention and sensitivity to the subject already makes 95% of the difference, Anna! So way to go.

By the way, I also lived as an 'only child' at home for quite a few years. It was different from my siblings' teenage years, but not better or worse. So don't worry too much about that. Andrew will get the benefits of 'being an only child' /and/ of having siblings!

Anonymous said...

I was born after my parents lost their third child - who was stillborn. I didn't think this post was 'about me' until I read the sentence "had a sibling not died, he or she might not have been born". That's something I struggled with as a (pre)teenager, quite a lot. My parents hardly ever spoke about losing their child; it was a different time with different 'norms' regarding pregnancy and infant loss (e.g., they didn't name or bury the child). I also think it was how they coped. I respect that they didn't make this child -who, unlike Jack, was never part of family life- part of everyday conversation, but I do wish that they had made us feel it was okay to ask/talk about it. However, they clamb up when the topic is brought up, so I only tried when I was pregnant myself and had to know if there was relevant medical information such as possibly hereditary risks. So I think your openness may very much help Andrew one day!

My father did once reply - when I was a pre teen and mentioned that I would not have been born if this older sibling had survived his birth - that that wasn't necessarily true, since he and my mom wanted /at least/ three children, but possibly more. Although I think that that was a slight embellishment of the truth, that rare comment on the subject helped me greatly. So your no. 1 item is very important from my experience.

I think your attention and sensitivity to the subject already makes 95% of the difference, Anna! So way to go.

By the way, I also lived as an 'only child' at home for quite a few years. It was different from my siblings' teenage years, but not better or worse. So don't worry too much about that. Andrew will get the benefits of 'being an only child' /and/ of having siblings!

jill capper said...

You were so gracious in handling this. Your response sounds perfect to me. Our Elizabeth has remained a member of our family the past thirty years, but no more important than other members, including our " rainbows" who know they put a smile back in my life, not because it was their job, just because they " are". You have a wonderful plan set up for your son, I too am much older, and there is much benefit to that in today's culture! Best wishes!

Anonymous said...

I am close friends with a couple who were in your situation. Their son passed away suddenly at the age of 16 leaving behind his parents and a younger sister. They immediately began trying to have another child and with IVF had a daughter; however, they were intent upon having a son (this was left unspoken but was clear to those of use close to them) to replace the son they had lost. Through another round of IVF they had a son who is now 15 and I think he lives each day knowing that he is a replacement. The sense of connection somehow seems to be missing for him and I think it is simply because the nature of his conception was forced to replace the irreplaceable. His parents have done nothing wrong as far as I know in their treatment of him and I have never heard them compare him to their first son, but he expressed to my son one time in a very honest moment that regardless of his parents' attention to him, he felt like an adopted child who was simply adopted because the parents could not have their own child. In other words, a default child. I apologize for the honesty of my words, but there is really no other way to describe how he expressed his feelings. I have no guidance for you other than to tread lightly and attentively and be prepared to accept that Andrew may at some time in his life feel this way and you may never even know it. He may keep those feelings near to his heart and not ever express them to you. There is really nothing you can do except to leave it in God's hands, treat him with love, and pray for the ability to accept Donaldson 2.0 -- however it evolves. Much love to your family and prayers for happiness for this new chapter.

Anonymous said...

P.S. to my comment above. I grew up extraordinarily happily as an "only" child. I loved it. My parents and I were extremely close and we have grown even closer as the years have passed. There is a uniquely special bond in an only-child home, so even though Andrew will not be an only-child in the technical sense, the time that he spends at home with you and your husband, if they are happy years, will give him a tremendously strong sense of self and confidence that really can only come from that tight bond of the only-child family. (Others will undoubtedly disagree, but I've lived it and I'm so happy I am the only one!) It's so funny to me when friends say they're definitely planning on having another baby because they don't want their child to be an only-child. It's obviously rude to say that in front of me, but it never bothers me because I know how happy I was as the only child and I just keep my words to myself and smile.

we ez said...

You got this Anna.

I'm curious to how old and what stage of life your reader is....if he has children of his own. How much more do we sympathize with our parents today b/c we now understand marriage and raising kids is so much harder than we thought! No one can ever fully understand the type of grief you've been through or the personal decision to have another baby unless they've walked in those same steps. His experience won't be Andrews.

Andrew has been brought into a house filled with love. That is the biggest gift. Jack will be by his side and together you'll raise an amazing boy!

Jenn said...

Hi there,

Longtime fan, rarely comment. We have two "rainbow babies" who are now sons 12 and 7, although our loss was infant loss and so quite different, I think, in terms of the traces in our home and routines and memories.

I took the road of talking about our daughter quite freely. We celebrate her birthday every year (hey...cake) and we visit her grave on her death day. We have pictures of her and an album of her brief life. For my oldest, I asked him your question. He said that he sometimes has felt angry or sad that he lost a sister he never knew. I asked my 7 year old and he said that he would like a big sister that would tell his big brother what to do.

I think your points are correct.We have really focused on appreciating each child for who he is, and making clear that they are wanted and loved, that we appreciate them as individuals, and believe in their ability to bring themselves to the world. I also will say that our general family philosophy is that a family is built on love, caring, and connection. For us the connection piece has meant sharing our grief too, in small doses and age-appropriate ways.

Manuela said...

I am almost 40, but I am a rainbowbaby after my mum had a miscarriage. The thing that hurt me most in life was one sentence my mum said to me durring a dispute we had. I was 12 or 13 and I knew about the miscarriage because my grandmother had told me about it. I wanted to talk about it with my mum. I told her how much I always wanted a big brother and this could be the reason. And then she said:"If we got him, you wouldn't be here". I know it's true. And I also know she didn't want to hurt me. She was just sad and hurt because I came up with this topic out of the blue. But this hurt so much - even years later, I can't forget about it. And somehow I still can't let go.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like your mom has some apologizing to do. I have also lost a child and had a baby after. I can understand the overwhelming heaviness of grief but I am also so grateful to my son that was born after my other sons accident. He has given me life again. You have that to your mom and you are such a blessing. Know that, know that you have a purpose that is so much greater than replacing your sibling. It sounds like your mom never processed her grief and that has nothing to do with you. Her words are words from grief and those words are not fact, they are emotional. I hope you can view your mom as a person who is hurting and not take her words personally. Talk to her and give her an opportunity to say she’s sorry.