Coping with Guilt in the Shadow of a Dead Brother

My entire life has been colored with grief. I really had no idea that I was acquainted with grief until 2012 when I read, “The Replacement Child”, a Psychology Today article by Dr. Abigail Brenner. In that moment, I realized that I was actually very well-acquainted with grief and that it was a constant companion in my life. I learned at the age of 44 that I am a replacement child.

Dealing with grief

My brother died at 9 days old from congenital heart failure. I was born 2 and one-half years later. During those couple years following my brother’s death, both my father’s infidelities and my mother’s drinking had increased. This was their primary coping strategy, respectively. My mother had always wanted three children to “complete” her family. I am not certain where my dad was on this decision, but she was obsessed. As she describes the time of my birth, my mother says she was paralyzed by her fears that something would also happen to me, so she wouldn’t even think about me while she was pregnant. They didn’t plan in expectation for my arrival and so unprepared for my stay, they couldn’t even choose a name for me. Their unfinished grief over my brother was stuffed away and the family rarely spoke his name, ever.

When my father passed recently, I happened to be working on childhood issues that cropped up around that time. I was discovering a layer of self-forgiveness. Based on the advice of my therapist, I attempted to be more authentic with my mother about my experience growing up in the shadow of a dead brother. This wasn’t as awkward as it might seem since my parents told me that I was my brother’s replacement (ironically, this was the word they used) for as long as I have memories. The only reason I was alive was because he had died.

When I told her that I had been growing in self-understanding and acknowledging my deceased brother as a huge part of my life’s journey, she looked at me cross-eyed and huffed, “Well, you need to get over that.”

“After all”, she claimed, “I am long over it, and he was my baby.” (Not their baby…not our baby…, but her baby.)

Except she didn’t get over it. They didn’t get over it. We didn’t get over it. Their repressed grief left me holding a colossal bag of guilt.

I felt that familiar wave of guilt wash over and through me. I felt guilty that I had kicked the hornet’s nest, again. I felt guilty that I needed to talk about me…about him…about THIS. I felt guilty that I wanted to talk with my mom about it. I felt guilty that I needed to be seen by her.

For as long as I can remember, something felt terribly wrong to me, but no one else would validate my concerns or could calm my fears. My parents and my older sister and brother would simply dismiss me whenever I questioned feelings, any feelings, theirs or mine.  Naturally, as a very young child, I reasoned there was something wrong with me – that I was fundamentally flawed.

The reality was we grew up in a home shattered by grief, with any and all feelings numbed by addictions. My parents lost their beloved son. He was the third child born into a family planning for three children. It was he who completed the family and held so much promise and hope of their futures together. He was named Scott William – Scott, after my father’s Scottish heritage (my grandparents were born in Scotland, so my dad was first generation Scottish in the United States). And, William after my mom’s father, our Grandpa Bill, who had a birthday either the day before or after Scott was born. Scott was 9 days old when he died from congenital heart failure. Early in her pregnancy, my mom contracted Rubella and it proved fatal for him.

Grief went unresolved and repressed in our family.  The four of them were bonded together in the joyous expectation of his arrival and the wretched despair of his sudden death.   My parents were buried in parenting their 3- and 5-year-old toddlers and trying desperately to “not feel”.  I cannot even imagine how overwhelming and heartbreaking this season of their life was. They were shrouded in pain and suffering and alcohol was the most efficient solution to keep up appearances of stability and hold back the bursting dam of emotions. Over time, alcohol was the glue that kept the family together. Until it wasn’t, but that is another story for another day. 

Replacement children, and the more compassionately termed “rainbow babies”, do share many emotional similarities. More precisely, replacement children and rainbow babies share identical birth order positioning, which is subsequent to the death of another child. Their identity is formed in relationship to another person who is a part of the family system and story. Unlike other children in the family system, they do not exist without the circumstance of death.

It’s important to understand that a child born or adopted after a loss is not automatically labeled a replacement child.  The prevailing distinction of a replacement child is parental unresolved grief and the resulting psychological damage from the projection of the lost child onto them as well as the emotional pathology with the specific indicators of feeling invisible, overlooked, disregarded, guilt, anxiety, identity confusion, lack of self-confidence, worthlessness, hyper-idealization (unable to live up to the ideal of the deceased) and compared to the deceased sibling (either overtly or covertly).

Many researchers attribute the guilt that replacement children and rainbow babies experience to survivor’s guilt. Simply stated, survivor’s guilt is a deep sense of guilt that comes from surviving something.  Survivors guilt, like grief, is complex and nuanced. Every individual experience is uniquely personal. Given the diversity of survivor’s guilt testimonies, when distilled down, the feelings described are quite similar: the sense of guilt that you survived when someone else died, deep guilt that you should have died and they should have lived and nagging guilt that they were physically harmed or died and you were completely spared.  

For the replacement child and rainbow baby, it’s a devastating trade-off. In order to be alive a sibling must die.

Looking back, now I can understand my guilt, but when I was a child, it was excruciating. I had multiple ulcers from my anxiety by the time I was 9. I felt guilty that I was alive and he wasn’t. I felt guilty that I had a life and wasn’t making much of it.  I felt guilty that I had a space here and he would’ve done a much better job than I was doing. I felt guilty knowing all they wanted was a happy family and that I wasn’t enough to alleviate their suffering. I felt guilty that I couldn’t be satisfied simply to belong in a family and hold all of the suffering without questions or complaints. I felt guilty that that I wished that Scott had never been born and that I was the third baby. I felt guilty that I found recovery and they remain entrenched in addiction. I felt guilty knowing that despite all of my valiant efforts to reconnect and rescue them from their pain, I failed. 

Remember those childhood issues that came up in my personal therapy? My dad disinherited me when he died.  Today, I am in the process of allowing my guilt to teach me. I feel guilty that in their eyes I ended up being a disappointment. Most of all I feel guilty that our family is fractured and has lost not one but two children.

I got sober at 22. Long story short, I discovered alcohol at 12, realized my parents coping strategy to numb out reality worked for me too, and I travelled fast and furiously to my rock bottom. At 23, I enrolled in grad school to become a therapist. Despite all of my knowledge and professional experiences, my genuine healing and growth came when I finally acknowledged and accepted that I was a replacement child. This was a huge relief for me. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, when her home is carried by tornado from a black and white Kansas and to the technicolor land of Oz. Here are a few things that have been a tremendous help to cope with my guilt feelings and have made growth and healing possible:

Find Your Tribe: I learned the power of community in my recovery journey. I have remained sober since I put down my last drink in 1991. I didn’t figure this out for myself though. I walk a path with a lot of others who share a similar condition. We help each other. It is the same with Replacements & Rainbows. It is healing to have community of folks who speak the same language. I have found that reading the stories posted here in the Replacement Child Forum and participating in the various workshops and webinars offered here really helps me to feel seen and understood. The more closely connected here to others who share similar experiences has transformed my growth.  In my therapy practice, I run support groups for those who identify as replacement and/or subsequent children and rainbow babies who have a small, contained space to grow in self-identity and understanding while connecting with others like themselves.

Feel to Heal: Whatever it is that you’re feeling, it’s okay to feel it. This was a big one for me and it took me a long time to unlearn my conditioned responses of emotional avoidance. As I have sobered up, I acquired emotional maturity, and I’ve learned to lean into my intense feelings as they arise rather than run from them.  My community really taught me how accept myself exactly how I am in the present moment. If everyone is happy and I feel sad, that is okay. I don’t need to hide or change.   

Live Your Purpose: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Celebrating your own survival does not in any way diminish your grief for those who did not survive. When I am in my guilty feelings, I need to decipher if I am wallowing or not. My brother died and that is painful. My purpose was never to replace him, but, as phrased by American  poet Mary Oliver, to live my one wild and precious life. It is important for me to remember that appreciation for my existence can co-exist with my grief for my brother who died and my family who still suffers in their addiction.

Over time I continue to grow more deeply into myself. I have more empathy, compassion and grace. I am capable of coping with intense and difficult feelings without having to numb myself.  I have plenty of people to help me navigate when the road gets dark and scary. I suspect the guilt will never fully leave me, but I do now notice when guilty feelings arise, that I can feel them, take heed of the signals for more self-forgiveness and learn from them.

Lisa K. Olson

Lisa K. Olson is a therapist and school counselor with over 25 years of clinical and education experiences working with children, adolescents, adults, couples and families. You can find more about her at https://www.lisaolsoncounseling.com.

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