When a Child Dies, and Another Is Born

·Senior Editor
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Francine Wheeler just before the birth of new son Matthew. Photo by Facebook.

The second anniversary of the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting is now less than a month away. But one of the families who lost a child on that fateful day has something beautiful to celebrate: the birth of a new son. Francine and David Wheeler, who lost their 6-year-old son Benjamin in the Connecticut school massacre, welcomed baby Matthew into their lives on Nov. 5.

“It’s been amazing,” David told the New York Daily News on Tuesday. Though the family is still grappling with Benjamin’s loss, he added, the decision to bring Matthew into the world was best for everyone. “We still have so much other stuff to process and deal with, but it was absolutely the right decision,” he said, noting that their older son, 11-year-old Nate, gets to be a big brother again, which has made him “absolutely thrilled.”

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As for what they’ll share with Matthew about the loss of Benjamin, David said, “We’ll certainly be honest with him. I don’t imagine it’s going to be very long until he realizes there was an older brother he’ll never know.”

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Benjamin Wheeler, 6, who was killed during the Sandy Hook shooting. Photo by Associated Press.

That relationship — between a child and a sibling who died before the other was born — can be fraught with emotional complexities, particularly if the parents have not sufficiently worked through their grief and subsequently have a new child, referred to by some psychologists in this case as a “replacement child.”

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“The replacement child is defined as one who is born to take the place of a deceased child,” Dr. Abigail Brenner, a San Francisco-based psychiatrist, writes in a recent blog post on Psychology Today. Over time, “the definition has been expanded to include an older child whose role within the family may be shifted in order to ‘take over’ for a deceased sibling (because of parental pressure and/or survivor guilt),” as well as a child who is made to feel responsible for a sibling who is physically challenged, and one “who is adopted to take the place of a biological child the parents were unable to have.” Though the term was first coined in 1964 by husband-and-wife psychiatrist team Albert and Barbara Cain, it’s not one that’s gotten much attention, until now. Brenner has co-written a forthcoming book on the topic, “Replacement Children: Personal Journeys” to be published in spring 2015. 

Still, she stresses to Yahoo Parenting, a child born after the death of another is not necessarily a replacement child, and can certainly be a healthy, positive blessing on a family who has been stricken by grief. This, she says, is a “subsequent child,” with parents who have really considered incorporating a new life into theirs rather than seeking to “make the child a reincarnation” of the one they lost.

“If they can really see the child as an individual, it’s okay,” Rita Battat Silverman, coauthor of the book with Brenner and a replacement child herself, tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s always about doing the grief work, and about understanding that what you lost was special, and that a new child has the right to come in as their own person.” Battat Silverman was born just 18 months after her 14-year-old brother died of a heart condition.

“My mother was a wonderful person, but she never resolved that loss,” she says. “So I was always going to be a disappointment. She was very, very critical of me, and thought if I couldn’t be that boy, then I had to be the perfect girl. I always felt my mother never knew who I was.” Battat Silverman never really understood why she felt such a burden growing up. But as an adult, when she met a mom in her son’s school who explained she was having trouble bonding with a baby meant to replace the one she’d lost, “the light bulb went off.”

Judy Mandel, a Connecticut-based author, had the same realization when she set out to write a memoir called “Replacement Child,” about a personal tragedy — a plane that crashed into her family’s home, killing her 7-year-old sister and severely burning her 2-year-old sister — that occurred before she was born. But her book became something much more. “I thought I was writing the story of the plane crash and my family recovering from the tragedy,” Mandel tells Yahoo Parenting. But through her research, she became aware that “being that replacement child turned out to be a weight I didn’t even know I was carrying.”

Growing up, her deceased sister Donna was always mentioned in “very lofty terms,” and her mom was severely depressed. “Looking back at pictures, I see I was given the same hairstyle [as Donna],” she says. “And I believe my father held some resentment toward me for being here when [Donna] couldn’t.” As she explains in her prologue: “I was conceived as the salve on the burns…”

Having a new child after the loss of another is far from unusual. Last year, Kevin and Marina Krim — the New York City couple whose nanny murdered two of their children— announced the birth of a new child. John Travolta and Kelly Preston had a new baby in 2010, almost two years after the death of their 16-year-old son Jett. Even Sigmund Freud has been noted as a “metaphorical replacement child,” through survivor guilt over the death of his brother Julius.

Regarding the Wheelers’ new addition, Mandel says, “I am praying for the best for that family. Just because someone has a child after they lost one doesn’t mean they have to be a replacement child. They’ve probably talked a lot about their grief, maybe even had counseling, and I think that prepares people to move on with their lives.” 

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