Saturday, March 16, 2013

After a sibling dies - Replacement Children

A few days ago I was contacted by Dr Abigail Brenner, a Psychiatrist from New York. Dr Brenner had read a few articles from my blog and asked if I’d be able to write an article to be published in a book she’s writing with co-author Rita Battat Silverman titled “The Replacement Child.”

The replacement child is a term often referred to a child who is conceived to replace a child who’s died or in my case, ‘a sibling who takes over a role for a sibling who’s died at an older age’

However, in my instance, my daughter Dempsey and I share a unique perspective in the fact that we both have lost our sister’s and both are seen as replacement children.

I thought I’d share the article I wrote for Dr Brenner in hope it helps anyone out there that is also a ‘replacement child’ or is struggling after the death of a sibling.

Keep an eye out for Dr Brenner’s book. I’ll be posting details when it’s published. Dr Brenner’s website is where she’s written some fantastic articles. She’s also a contributor to which is a resource full of outstanding articles that can help.

Here is my article on Sibling Loss – Replacement Children;

This is the last photo I have of my sister and me...its a reminder to take more photos....

My daughter and I share a special bond. Both our only sister’s have died.

The death of my first child Savannah created the same unique loss for my other daughter Dempsey.

Sometimes, we are known as ‘replacement children’.

However, I feel I have an advantage over Dempsey, because I’m an adult. I can comprehend the ‘how’ and ‘whys’ and can process my sadness to a greater degree. Dempsey is only a tiny ten years old, she was almost two when her sister Savannah died at the age of four and a half. She never knew her! I’m thankful I had 34 years with my sister Tarnia.

However, I’ve learned, no matter the age, the feelings and thoughts after losing a sibling are similar. The only difference is Dempsey’s questions about her sister’s death are unfiltered….honest, unlike mine which I hide most days like a shameful secret.

Yesterday, Dempsey and I had a chat about the loss of her sister Savannah, and my sister Tarnia, as we sometimes do.

You see yesterday, my sister’s twin daughters Emerald and Charlotte were over at our house for a swim, the splashing going on in the pool went from giggles to tears in a heartbeat.

An argument erupted over a silly game, “Marco Polo”…and when the twins left, Dempsey burst into a ball of tears in my arms. Crying about the argument, because she loves her cousins, they’re like sister’s to her. Sister’s like the one she doesn’t have here.

I hugged her and we chatted about the silly fight. I told her she has to be kind to her cousins, to forgive them. That one day, Daddy and I will be gone and it’ll be important she has her cousins in her life as she doesn’t have her sister here….or any other sibling.

Later, when she was in bed, I thought about our conversation, I always wrestle with guilt that she doesn’t have her sister here and that I couldn’t give her another sibling. I thought how the death of a brother or sister leave lifetime scars, a cocktail of emotions that linger on years after their deaths.

For me, losing my sister changed my identity. It changed my place in our family from being the baby to stepping up into my sister’s shoes and becoming a replacement for her….in many many ways. I still struggle with some of the fall out of her death. It never goes away, and if anything, as time goes on, it gets harder because she’s not here. I think that’s the most challenging thing, that death is final.

Some of the things I struggled with and still do are these;

Guilt; Guilt that it wasn’t me that died. Why her and not me? Guilt that after some time, I could laugh again and enjoy life….and Tarnia never would again.

Guilt that I get to witness her children growing up and not her! It was me that attended her son Alexander’s Graduation, and me that her other son Fraser pours his love into. Me that got to take her twin daughters shopping for their first bra….

I also have guilt that as Dempsey grows into a woman she won’t have her sister here to support her when she needs someone. And I can’t dismiss these feeling’s, I’ve learned how to accept that this is part of who I am now.

I’ve managed to channel my grief over my sister’s death into something constructive by keeping a journal of memories about Tarnia that’s helped me to heal and relieve some of my guilt. Her four children, especially her twin daughter’s who were only six months old when she died will cherish this one day.

Sadness; The sadness comes and goes. On difficult days like birthdays and anniversaries it returns in force. However, for a long time after Tarnia died it was like I was invisible. Everyone was supporting Mom and Dad, and rightly so, not many people asked the simple question, “How are you doing Diana?” I was left alone to deal with losing my sister while at the same time morphing into my mother’s role, comforting her as she was inconsolable. And because of this I hide my tears from Dempsey when she cries for her sister….it’s heartbreaking, but I never want her to feel she somehow has to ‘fix’ my grief or that she’s responsible for my happiness because of her sister’s death.

I fear Dempsey will also have guilt as we were praying Dempsey’s stem cells from her cord blood would save Savannah…but this wasn’t to be and I’m afraid this may play on her psyche in years to come…that she couldn’t save her sister too.

Anxiety; Anxiety is now part of my being, like the birthmark on my neck; I carry it around everyday because of my sister and my daughter’s death. I’ve become a helicopter Mom as a result of that anxiety and fear. Because I know in a heartbeat that life can change.

I hate Dempsey being out of my sight, and I worry when she wants to be a thrill seeker, jumping off a pier or kayaking on our lake! Sometimes, Dempsey reminds me to “Stop Mommy!” And I hate myself for not being able to control this evil twin that I live with.

Anger; After Tarnia died, I was angry at her, which was ridiculous! Anger that she caused so much pain to Mom and Dad…to her husband and kids….that she altered my life.

Anger at my Dad that sometimes he favored my sister’s children over mine, I feel he still does this sometimes. It’s a demon I still struggle with.

Wondering; The reflecting and wondering is unyielding, relentless…for me it’s the ultimate emotion in the grief process. I know Dempsey always wonder’s too. She often asks; “What was Savannah like?” “Did she love me?” “What would it be like if my sister was still here?”…amongst so many questions she longs to know, as do I…and I realize that she’ll struggle with this as her life unfolds.

For a long time after my sister and my daughter died the wondering became an obsession.   Once I followed a stranger around the supermarket because she looked so much like my sister…I couldn’t stop staring at her…and imagining, just for a second it was Tarnia!

And some nights, I watch Dempsey sleep, soaking in the resemblance between my child who’s here and the one who’s not. I also know I can’t fix this part of Dempsey’s life…without her sister, it’s something I can only give her tools to deal with as she grows.

Sibling grief runs as deep as losing my child. It’s always there, however different, it’s shaped and molded me into a new person.

I feel my biggest responsibility now is to be there for my sister’s children, to love them and support them. And then there’s Dempsey. She will feel the ripples of her sister’s death her whole life….like I do.

I can’t change that, however I can take what I’ve learned through having experienced the same unique loss and provide her with guidance and knowledge that she is her own special irreplaceable being. To never make her feel she is inferior to her sister who isn’t here or that she’ll never live up to who Savannah was to me.

I can reinforce she should never have guilt, that she’s innocent of not being able to save her sister. Instead of sadness she should be happy she had a sister, and that we have photos and meaningful videos and my memories of their time together.   And also that anger and anxiety create unhappiness. I teach her we all have choices that will shape who we become, so to always choose to live life to the fullest and enjoy every moment she’s blessed with.

However, the wondering.....that’s something I think she’ll learn to incorporate into her life…as I have, a byproduct of grief that losing a loved one, especially a sibling brings.

Yes, Dempsey and I share not just a mother/daughter relationship but a connection, that as an adult she will come to understand and if I lead by example, and demonstrate to her that girl friends and cousins can be sisters, family you choose for yourself!  

That all is not lost, and that lessons in losing a sibling teach us compassion and appreciation and that’s something I will be grateful my sister left me with forever……like her death.