Born After Loss
Living in the shadow of a lost sibling.
Posted July 22, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams
- People who are born after the death of a sibling are sometimes referred to as subsequent children or replacement children.
- The death of a child is one of the most painful losses. Parents may be forever changed by the loss of a child.
- Subsequent children are sometimes conceived to fill the void left by their deceased sibling, although this dynamic varies in intensity.
What does it mean to be born after a loss?
It might be counterintuitive to think that a death that occurred before someone’s birth would have an impact. But if we consider the ways that a family changes and reacts to the loss of a child we can begin to picture the possible significance of being born into a bereaved family.
The death of a child is known as one of the most painful losses to endure. Children are often seen as the bearers of a family’s dreams and hopes for the future. Parents usually have a fierce attachment to their children and do not expect to outlive them. They frequently experience their child’s death as a traumatic loss and feel forever changed. A child’s death may result in lifelong mourning.
Replacement Dynamics in a Mourning Family
People who are born after the death of a sibling are sometimes referred to as subsequent children or replacement children. Their experiences of being born after a loss are rarely spoken about. Studies have shown, however, that being born as a subsequent child can have a significant impact upon someone’s identity, attachments, and life story.
The term “replacement child” was devised after researchers realized that subsequent children are sometimes conceived, consciously or unconsciously, to fill the void left by their deceased sibling and that they are sometimes viewed as replacements. Rather than defining someone as a replacement child, I prefer to think about replacement dynamics, which can vary in intensity and per person, and may shift over time. I will talk more about that in a future post.
Bereaved parents sometimes struggle to attach to their subsequent baby as they fear another loss. They might have hoped that having another child will make the family feel whole again, but later realize that nothing can erase their grief.
Some subsequent children are raised in an atmosphere of intense mourning. In other families, the loss is a secret, unspoken but powerful in the family dynamics. Surviving siblings (brothers or sisters who were alive at the time of the loss) are an additional piece of the picture in many families, and they fully share in the grief and complicated repercussions of the loss.
When we envision the ways that the stage may be set in a mourning family, we can begin to imagine the complexity of a subsequent child’s experience.
Vollmann, S. (2014). A Legacy of Loss: Stories of Replacement Dynamics and The Subsequent Child. The Omega Journal of Death and Dying, 69 (3).