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: