I grew up believing that I was a replacement child, for I was given life after another child lost his: a brother my family loved and missed, and whose absence cast an obvious shadow over my grieving mother’s heart. Nicky, her oldest son from another marriage had died suddenly at the age of ten, a year before I was conceived. As my mother explained, his unexpected death was the reason that my parents made the decision to have me, their one last child.
My parents’ marriage was a second one for both and together they formed a stepfamily made up of five spirited children. The arrangement was fraught with all the inherent challenges of blending recently divorced families and the turmoil of children whose lives had been dramatically rearranged. Partly in an effort to cement their new stepfamily, my parents soon had a baby boy of their own. With so many kids in the mix and money tight, he was to be their one and only child together.
Then tragedy struck when Nicky drowned in a pond during a family visit to the country. My mother was devastated. By her telling, it was my parents’ now one-year-old baby boy who saved her from sinking into the depths of fresh maternal grief. His smiling face and the immediacy of his needs were her main connection to the present. It was only logical that my parents chose to have one more baby to fill the hole in the family created by Nicky’s death. And so I was conceived.
My mother used to tell me this origin story as I was growing up, I suspect because she saw my role in our family as a gift and a source of joy, delivered in the aftermath of tragedy. But I was confused and guilt-ridden. Trying to make sense of this information, I figured out that because I was grateful to have been born, I must have been glad that Nicky had died.
Adding to this muddle, my mother seemed at a loss for ways to openly carry on her love for Nicky, or to honor his life. There had been no funeral or memorial service when he died. His cremains were buried on his paternal grandmother’s property, hours from where we lived, on land that was eventually sold off to strangers. There was no shared recognition of Nicky’s birthday or death date, nor did any bench, tree or scholarship fund bear his name. I could see the effort it took my mother to talk about her beloved son and I was acutely aware of the sadness in her voice when she said his name.
Trying to understand this dead boy with whom I shared an unusual connection, I looked closely at pictures of Nicky in family albums and framed on the wall above my mother’s bed. It scared me to think that a child’s life could leave so little mark upon the world aside from my mother’s quiet, piercing pain.
With few clues to help me understand who Nicky was, I yearned to learn more. In my egocentric child’s view, it was clear that I alone was left out of this part of our family’s history; me, the replacement child who owed Nicky for my life. Would he have liked me, I wondered? I think I hoped to be worthy of the life that my unknowable brother had inadvertently bestowed upon me.
I developed a preoccupation with death that gripped me with fear as I lay in bed at night. I imagined myself dead and gone, the world spinning on forever in the vast nothingness of space, no trace of my life or any meaning that it might have once held. I lay bathed in sweat and stricken with fear that when death inevitably came for me, I would be lost forever — just like Nicky.
As I grew older and developed an adult’s understanding of the difficult situation my parents faced, I slowly began to make peace with my relationship to Nicky. I surmised that my parents’ inability to include Nicky’s memory in our lives might have been partly due to an era in which death was less talked about, especially the tragic loss of a child. From what I understand and remember of life in the seventies, there were fewer avenues for family members to openly process their grief.
It does not have to be this way, as I learned firsthand in a heartbreaking turn of events that brought my story full circle. My husband, kids and I became close with a couple whose only child (at the time) had recently died under sudden and tragic circumstances. In the aftermath of their devastating loss, our new friends shared some of their grief with us. They told us about their beautiful daughter and accepted our attempts to offer comfort — which mostly just meant listening. We grew so close that we felt like family by the time they gave birth to a new baby, a couple of years later.
She is a delightful toddler now, and being close to their family has allowed me to see how the joy and innocence of new life can be a balm on the wounds of grieving parents. Of course, our friends will forever grieve their irreplaceable first daughter, which is why their ability to truly embrace their second child is so profound to witness. They do a beautiful job of parenting both their children: their deceased child’s photographs and artwork grace the walls of their home and they speak about her often, telling their daughter all about the big sister she never knew.
My own parents’ struggle to keep Nicky in our lives left me wondering where I fit in our family, and whether I ever really would. I know now that I was never a replacement for Nicky. One person cannot substitute for another and I do not believe that was ever my parents’ intent. Witnessing our friends’ ongoing love for both their daughters has helped me understand that Nicky and I each occupy distinct places in our family. Today, my connection with him feels more like a privilege than a burden. I have gratitude, admiration and compassion for my parents, and I feel blessed to have given them the opportunity to love another child. Our friends have helped me resolve my own story for they have shown me that when we summon the strength to embrace life anew with all its beautiful gifts and terrifying risks, a family’s love has no limits and no end.