Why Am I Here When You Are Not?
Survivor’s guilt in the replacement child
Posted Mar 22, 2013
One of the intrinsic characteristics of a replacement child, in the strict sense being one who is born after a sibling has died, is the issue of identity. Finding a sense of self can be thwarted by the replacement child’s unconscious survivor’s guilt. The feeling that “I am here because you died” or “Why am I here when you are not?” is the basis for guilt for any child who takes the place of another in any sense.
As a replacement child, I can tell you that this sense of guilt was always unconscious for me until very recently when I explored it through writing my memoir, Replacement Child. It was a ghost at the dinner table, a vague sense of feeling “other” or outside my family.
Maurice Porot, (“L’enfant de eplacement” 1993) who did research in France with people who survived tuberculosis, creating another subset of replacement children, found that the surviving child in the family took on the role to comfort the parents over the loss and replacing the child who died, thus also leading to non-identity issues.
In her 2004 paper “Life after Death: The Replacement Child’s Search for Self”, psychoanalyst Kristina Schellinski offers the hypothesis that the replacement child may find their own sense of self through becoming conscious of their feelings of guilt at surviving the child who died. She herself is a replacement child with a unique perspective, and has treated adult replacement children between the ages of twenty-two and seventy-one years old. Schellinski notes “feeling guilty is a major factor separating us from an experience of self.” Bringing the guilt out into the open can transform it, she says, into “compassion with one’s own suffering,” and ultimately offers “the gateway for union with oneself and with others.” Schellinski proposes this release from guilt, leading to comfort with self identity can be a fourth way out for the replacement child, in addition to the three that Porot identified: madness, creativity or becoming a psychologist.
It is encouraging to note that there are many examples of successful and productive replacement children. Porot looked at over fifty biographies of replacement children from ancient to modern times.
The first replacement child in recorded history may have been Seth, who replaced Abel after Abel was slain by Cain. Eve says (Genesis 4.25) “God has granted me other seed in place of Abel . . . and God said to Cain: “The voice of your brother’s blood crieth unto Me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10)
A representative list of replacement children you may recognize includes Solomon, Napoleon III, Ludwig van Beethoven, Salvador Dali, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sabina Spielrein, Françoise Dolto, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Barrie (creator of Peter Pan), Eugene O’Neill and Carl Gustav Jung.
Apparently, the replacement child’s struggle is sometimes society’s gain in art, literature and understanding. In any case, it makes me a little bit prouder to be among the group.
Thank you to Kristina Schellinski for the succinct research used here.
by Judy L. Mandel