Losing a Sibling Can Reverberate in Grief and the Replacement Child Condition – The Chelsea Handler Story

Replacement children are not only born after a loss, also a sibling who dies or disappears while growing up together can have life-long consequences, especially around issues of coping with grief and loss and acknowledging anger and insecurity.

Chelsea Handler

Chelsea Joy Handler is an American comedian, actress, writer, television host, and producer. In her book, Life Will Be the Death of Me, she introduces us to a family tragedy which shapes her life forever.

Chelsea Handler grew up the youngest of six children. In a household lacking supervision, her brother Chet—the oldest of the six—took on the responsibility of caring for Chelsea and making her feel safe. Chelsea felt most understood by Chet and cherished the experiences they shared together.

When Chet was twenty-two years old, he went on a hiking trip with friends into the mountains of Wyoming. Chet’s plan was to spend two weeks in the mountains before joining his family on their vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. Tragically, he never made it. During a hike he suffered a fatal fall.

Chelsea, who was only nine years old at the time of Chet’s accident, had no one to help process her grief. Her parents were barely able to manage their own. Chelsea’s mother was passive, hands off, and spent most of her time sleeping. Her father, because of the incident, “checked out”, and Chelsea’s relationship with him became distant and difficult. Chelsea confesses the day after the funeral was the last time she cried publicly or showed any weakness around other people. Feeling confused, angry, and unable to empathize with other’s pain, she chose not to talk about her brother to the family. Problems at school began. As Chelsea admits, “I became trouble.”

Life had presented a crisis for which she was totally unequipped to deal with. At nine years old, Chelsea had lost all previous sense of security and predictability. Unable to cope with her own pain, Chelsea chose to escape. She was constantly in motion, only allowing herself to cry on bike rides which would last for hours. She committed herself to fixing other people’s problems and issues so she wouldn’t have to focus on her own vulnerability.

It wasn’t until much later in life, as an adult, Chelsea was able to interpret her emotions and process her grief with a competent therapist. For the first time she understood how she turned her pain into anger and her anger into motion. Constant motion served as a distraction from her feelings, allowing her to escape the need to acknowledge her deep-seated grief. Finally, by properly working through those feelings, Chelsea could recognize her brother’s death not just as a defining moment in her life, but as a moment which was defining her.

Follow us on your favorite social media sites: