When You’re a “Replacement Child”

Author: Mary Grace Donaldson, Real Life Stories

I’m sure you’ve heard the term “survivor’s guilt” before.

It’s often associated with war veterans who lost friends who became family while in combat — Vietnam, the Korean War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War are all recent examples.

Or maybe you’ve heard it talked about it with stories surrounding September 11. Workers who made it out of the buildings, but had coworkers who didn’t. Passengers who were supposed to get on the plane that morning but, for one reason or another, didn’t make their flight.

Or maybe you’ve heard it on a true crime show, in which surviving family members of someone who was murdered talk about how it “should have been me.”

The kind of survivor’s guilt that I experience is not of that magnitude, and I in no way want to minimize the pain of what veterans, 9/11 survivors and family members of murder victims deal with on a daily basis. The kind of survivor’s guilt I live with on a daily basis relates to someone I’ve never even met.

My parents lost a baby before I was born.

While I never did get to meet my older brother and have lived my entire existence as an only child, there are parts of knowing that he did exist that creep into my head almost every day, making me feel, well, guilty… and things that people who don’t understand say that are unintentionally hurtful.

The technical term for a child who lives following a deceased child — whether that deceased child was a baby or grew into childhood years — is Replacement Child. I’m truly one of the lucky ones as my parents never made me feel as though I were a “replacement” for my brother. At the same time, I often felt as though there were big shoes to fill just by virtue of his existence and subsequent death.

So, what can you say? Or, what shouldn’t you say?

Don’t ask me why someone I’ve never met has had such a profound affect on my life
My brother existed. He existed long enough for my parents to have him baptized in the hospital, and long enough to have one of the nurses take pictures. He paved the way for me to live the life I am currently living.

Don’t minimize his meaning
My brother had a life. He breathed air and his heart pumped red blood, even if it was only for moments.

Understand that I “what if” a lot
What would life have been like for me if my brother had lived? What type of person would I be? Would I have gone to the same schools? Had the same friends? What would my relationship with my parents have been like?

Understand that this isn’t something I open with
While I’m writing about this complicated part of my life — a part that could be perceived as sad, dramatic and confusing — I generally don’t want to talk about it because it’s complicated.

But if I do talk about it…
there’s a good chance that metaphorical light bulb will go off in your head about some unexplained part of my behavior à la “oh, that’s why she does that.” Yup. It all makes sense now why I don’t like it when you talk badly about your siblings, doesn’t it? But please know that I don’t blame you for venting, as I would do when I was younger. How could you possibly know if I don’t tell you?

How does it feel?

Sometimes it feels like you’re not worthy
I often wonder why my brother had to die and I got to live. It’s not fair. What did I do to deserve life? As a religious, church-going person, my belief is that God had a reason. But even as a person of faith, it’s admittedly easy to lose sight of that belief.

I am often left wondering if he’s proud of me
If I’m going with the belief that God had a reason for taking my brother before I even had the chance to meet him, I hope that he knows how much I appreciate life and won’t take it for granted.

I hope that one day we’ll meet
Again, my faith tells me that if I do all of the right things, we will. And I hope that if life after death is anything like life during life, we’ll at least be able to talk and I can get some answers.


Having feelings of survivor’s guilt, as well as wondering what your life would have been like if things were different, is something that stays with you for life — as much of it is venturing into the realms of the unknown.

But, I’m also here to tell you that if you come from a “Replacement Child” home, you are worthy. The only one who continues the idea that I’m not worthy in my own head is me, and no one else. And I’m trying to remove those thoughts from my head every single day.

You are loved. You are special in your own right. And if you are a person of faith as I am, it’s possible that you believe you have someone always watching over you.

For more information about infant loss, please visit www.hopeafterloss.org.

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