It’s common for children to be named after a family member—a beloved aunt, uncle, or grandparent, for instance. In my book, The First Kristin: The Story of a Naming (Main Street Rag), (buy the book here), I explore the unique phenomenon of being named after a deceased sibling, my parents’ first child. In our family, she’s always been called the first Kristin. She died at age three, just a few weeks before her fourth birthday, during surgery to correct scoliosis. The mechanics of the surgery went as expected, but as it turned out, unbeknownst to my parents or the doctors at the time, she had hypoadrenalism: underdeveloped adrenal glands. When it was time to come out of the anesthesia, she didn’t. She was my parents’ only child at the time, and they were, of course, absolutely devastated.
Eighteen months later, my sister, Cynthia, was born. A few years after that came by brother, Ted. I was born a few years after him, eight and a half years after the first Kristin’s death, and my parents named me Kristin. My siblings and I have always known about the first Kristin. Her life and death were not taboo subjects in our house, unlike other families I have read about in which the death of a child is shrouded in secrecy, even shame. My parents didn’t talk about her excessively, but they answered our questions when we were kids, and they shared stories about her. They always kept a picture or two of her on their bedroom dresser, and there were of course pictures of her in photo albums as well.
Growing up, I told a few close friends that I was named after a deceased sibling, and I have shared that fact with my closest friends as an adult as well. People’s reactions to this information run the gamut—from surprise to shock to sadness to indignation and even anger on my behalf. It’s impossible to gauge how someone will respond, and I’m frequently surprised by the vehemence this news elicits. To me, it’s just the way it is. While I thought about it over the years, I confess I never got particularly introspective about it. My feelings as a child were mainly those of sorrow at the thought of my parents’ grief. When I was young, I sometimes looked upon the naming as a sign of favoritism and felt sorry for my sister, Cynthia, not being so honored. I learned much later that because she was the next one born, another daughter, Cynthia felt as a child that she was always in the first Kristin’s shadow. For many years, I believed the first Kristin was my guardian angel.
More recently, though, I began thinking about the situation much more deeply. I began writing what I thought would be an essay but which grew into a book about the first Kristin’s short life and unexpected death, about how having her name has affected me, and about what having a deceased sister in the family has meant for me, my siblings, and our parents. I think about what our family would have been like had she lived. I wonder whether I would have been born had she lived. I’ve considered whether my major life choices may reflect a deep-rooted desire to assuage my parents’ grief or to prove my worth—to live up to the name and legacy I’ve been given. I’m an academic who often suffers from impostor syndrome and came to realize it’s a very intriguing word I’ve settled upon—impostor—to describe myself. I think of my anxieties and insecurities and how or to what extent they’re rooted in having a name that carries such grief and loss. On the other hand, I know the naming was a gesture of love on my parents’ part—for their first child, certainly, but for me as well. And quite simply, my mother says, they loved the name, which they got from Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. After a horrific tragedy, my parents stayed together and had three more children. While there’s a legacy of grief in my family, in my name, there’s also strength, commitment, and resilience.
I don’t know if this mix of feelings will ever be resolved. Unearthing new information about the first Kristin while writing my book only led to more questions, and since the deaths of my mother and father, more things keep cropping up, like the first Kristin’s birth announcement, which my brother found tucked into a cubby hole of my mother’s desk after she died. I don’t know if I’ll ever really know what it “means” to have my sister’s name, or what precisely I “should do” with this legacy. I’ll probably keep writing about it, in one way or another, for the rest of my life.
Kristin Czarnecki holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and is a Professor of English at Georgetown College. She is the author of The First Kristin: The Story of a Naming.