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The Replacement Child Theory

Jayme and her little brother Alex

Jayme and her little brother Alex

by Sue McKechnie, Caregiver

Not even one year after we lost our son, Shawn to a brain tumour, I began thinking about having another child. I told myself that our six year old daughter needed a sibling as I didn’t want her growing up as an only child. I wasn’t naïve to my own needs that were sending my thoughts down this path; I missed small arms wrapped around my neck and that soft whispering voice of a young child.  I also missed having someone who needed me, someone to take up the idle time I now had.

In those early days while we were still dragging ourselves through the mire of grief, it was hard to know whether these feelings were just another symptom of being a bereaved parent – the need to fill that hole in our hearts – or a true desire to continue our family.

My husband and I discussed at length if this was the right thing to do for us and for our daughter, Jayme.  We scoured the internet for research and opinion on the subject and found an interesting article about replacing a child who has died.  The theory is that if a child is born too soon after a sibling has passed, this newborn becomes a replacement in the eyes of the parent and in fact causes psychological damage to both the new child and parents as well. To the child who can never live up to the expectations of the family and to the parents who never truly grieved for the child who died.

I could understand how this may happen to those couples who had buried their feelings deep and had not explored any outlets for their sorrow. For them, having another child may be an attempt to place a band aid over their broken hearts or to tell those around them that all is well.  It may also be a way to keep reality at bay. Absolutely everyone deals with grief differently but eventually it has to be dealt with.  Keith and I had never shied away from our heartache as we discussed it at length and sought out others to help us deal with the weight of it.

When it came to having another child and the theory of replacing Shawn, we examined our intentions and came to the conclusion that this theory just didn’t ring true for us.

There is no doubt that having another child after losing one adds to the already mountain of emotions you feel as a bereaved parent. Guilt is a perfect example. For us it was not the worry of undue expectations on a new child but the worry that Shawn, wherever he was now in his journey, would think that we had moved on and forgotten him.  As we gave our desire to have another child time to fully develop, we came to the conclusion that Shawn’s sister did not take over the love we had for him, therefore a new child would not either.

Replacing Shawn was impossible. No-one could have his sweet demeanor, his courage or his goofy sense of humour. He was distinctly himself and held a particular place in our hearts.  Just like Jayme did and just like a new child would.

We would continue to love Shawn and grieve for him regardless of whether we had another child or not.

That being said, having Jayme certainly did help us travel through our grief. She was the reason to get up in the morning, to celebrate the holidays and to generally put one foot in front of the other. It made sense to us that another child would help to bring joy and purpose into our lives and relieve some of our sadness. Not replace the fallen branch of our family tree but create a new limb all their own.

We did eventually have another child; another son, Alex. He is now three and I can tell you from personal experience that he has not replaced Shawn at all but in fact the opposite is true. Shawn’s journey has affected the way we view those that we love including Alex and Jayme; with more patience and appreciation.


SueMcKechnieSue McKechnie learned her young son, Shawn had a brain tumour in May of 2006. When he passed away 18 months later after the rollercoaster of diagnosis, treatment, hope and terminal illness, she realized that even though he was gone from this world, he continued to send her courage from another.  The message was clear – get out there and help other families sharing this journey. Since then Sue has written the book ‘A Sippy Cup of Chemo; A Family’s Journey Through Childhood Cancer’ hoping to spread the message to other bereaved families that they are not alone. “It’s wonderful to talk to other parents who truly understand – the grief, the guilt and all the myriad of emotions you face. We didn’t choose to be part of this group, nor would we wish it upon anyone else but here we are and we need to support each other.”  All the proceeds from her book are donated to Meagan’s Walk; benefitting brain tumour research at SickKids Hospital, a charitable organization whose committee Sue is a member of.  Sue continues to advocate for funding and awareness of childhood cancer through blogging, speaking engagements and her work through Meagan’s Walk.


This entry was posted in all, Childhood Cancer Awareness and Advocacy, Living with Cancer and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Replacement Child Theory

  1. Gayle Hammill says:

    Sue …you and Keith never once ceased to amaze Larry and I. We applaud you with all that you have accomplished for Shawn

  2. linda irwin says:

    Sue, what a beautiful, thoughtful article. There is always room in our hearts for a child’s love.

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