Parental Bereavement and the Replacement Child

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Actors John Travolta and Kelly Preston have announced that they are expecting a child in November, just one year after the loss of their 16-year-old son Jett. Some psychologists fear that the couple may be having a “replacement child”, a term used to describe a child born soon into a family who has suffered a terrible loss.

The death of a child is among the most profound losses that an individual can suffer. The parental grieving is the most intense of all sorrows and the most complicated. Overcoming the grief can be difficult. Some parents wish to have another child in order to come to terms with the loss, according to Katherine Shear, professor of psychiatry and social work at Columbia University. Shear, who was interviewed on ABCNews.com, specializes in complicated grief . “After they have accepted the loss, it is a very natural part of life and can be a very healing thing to do.”

However, for some parents who are never able to fully and completely mourn the death of their child, having another child soon after can be developmentally devastating to the child. The baby is thought to be at risk for later psychological difficulties because of an inability to form his own identity separate from the dead sibling.

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The first study on “replacement children” was conducted in 1964 by Albert and Barbara Cain who reported on six families receiving psychiatric treatment following the death of a child. They had all had subsequent children who later developed psychiatric problems. The parents in the paper were described as being restrictive and overprotective, and the children were fearful, anxious, and morbidly preoccupied with death.

The risk of the “replacement child” is lower for parents who have lost children in infancy, as the baby had not had an opportunity to create many memories for the parents. However, they still must mourn the dreams and expectations they had for the child, and may inadvertently impose those same feelings on the new child.

Psychologists state that it is very important for parents who have experienced the loss of a child to seek mental health support during their time of grieving. While not all parents who have subsequent children are in danger of creating a “replacement child”, those who have not grieved appropriately are at a higher risk. “The new pregnancy should not be an attempt to deal with the sadness,” says Shear.

For the Travolta's, Shear says that we should be happy for their upcoming pregnancy and non-judgmental. "When they do this, it's usually with a little bit of sadness and trepidation even when they know it's the right thing for them, and I don't think we should judge them," she said. "When they make that decision, it's a hard one to make and we should primarily support them."

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