In Flux

Embracing transitions and change

Reflections of a Replacement Child

Asking the questions; finding the answers.

After writing about replacement children in this space, I connected with Judy L. Mandel, author of Replacement Child, who has written what I believe to be the only memoir by someone who identifies as a replacement child. We’ve had several conversations, and I found Judy to have an in-depth, long view perspective that I thought would interest my readers.

Judy and I have discussed the need for a support community for both adult replacement children, and for parents who are considering having another child after losing a child.

“Not only did I have to do four years of research and write a book to understand that I was part of a group called replacement children, I also realized that there was virtually no one to talk to about it,” Judy told me. “When I have been able to talk to others who feel that they are in some way replacement children, it’s been like talking to a long lost relative. We have so many things in common; it’s a little scary.”

Some of those characteristics, such as issues with identity and self-esteem, played out for Judy in many of her life choices.

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“Not having a clear sense of my own place in my family, I believe, extended to my life outside the family and was a factor in creating low self-esteem, and leading me to make some choices I may not have made,” Judy said.

That was especially true, she told me, of her early choices in men.

“One of my biggest epiphanies in writing Replacement Child was that my dad, on some level, resented me for not being my sister—for being here when she was not,” Judy said. “In many ways, my dad was a wonderful man, but he wasn’t able to be fully present for me. As a result, I wound up being attracted to that kind of coolness in men as I got older. Not always a good idea.”

As I’ve mentioned here before, there is a spectrum of experience for replacement children. Judy’s has been in the middle range, she estimates.

“I was very lucky,” she continued. “My parents were loving people who had been dealt a very tragic hand when a plane crashed into their home and killed their seven-year-old daughter. On top of that, their two-year-old was burned very badly and needed an enormous amount of care over the years. I still think that any negative effects of their parenting were inadvertent. But, even now, I’m never sure if that perspective is yet another facet of my downplaying my own importance. I do know that my mother’s unconditional love was what always rescued me.”

For parents who lose a child in any way, it is extremely important to grieve fully for that child before moving on to have subsequent children. I wondered if Judy knew anything about her parents’ grieving after the death of their daughter, and before their decision to have her.

“My mother couldn’t attend her daughter’s funeral,” Judy explained. “Jewish law required the burial to be very quick, and my mother was still in the hospital recovering from burns after the accident. Also, my parents didn’t have any of my sister’s things left—they were all destroyed in the fire. From what I have read, that fact deprived them of an important element in the grieving process; to spend time with clothes or toys or in the deceased’s room. The time element was also against them since my mother was already an older mother of 35 at the time of the accident. That rushed her a bit to have another child, possibly too soon.”

Professional help in working through grief is something I recommend to parents who suffer the loss of a child, especially when they are considering adding to their family again.

“Interestingly, I know that my parents had one visit with a psychiatrist,” Judy told me. “It wouldn’t be in my father’s nature to go to one. From what I know, that was when they received, what I call in my book, the prescription to lift my mother out of a deep depression—which was to have me.”

We talked a bit about how parents can mitigate any possible issues for a child coming into the family after the death of another. Honoring the individual character of each child is of the utmost importance; letting them be who they are without comparison to the other child.

“I think it got easier for my parents to stop any comparison with my sister as I passed the age when she was killed,” Judy said. “Before the age of seven, I have pictures of myself with her same hairstyle and in dresses that did not suit my own character at all. I was not a frilly little girl like my sister, or what I knew of her through photos and stories. Whether it was conscious or unconscious, I separated myself from her memory by being more of a tomboy. Later, it was by taking risks to prove the world was a safe place, in direct revolt to my parents’ insistence that it was not. Of course, that perspective all reversed when I had a child of my own. Then, somehow the dangers manifested in my mind; reasoning that if a plane could fall from the sky into my parents’ home, then anything can happen. But, that’s for another time.”

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life and other books.

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