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On the last track we discussed The Three ‘D’s of Grief. The Three ‘D’s of Grief refer to forms of emotional and physical numbing I have found to be common among clients experiencing grief. The Three ‘D’s of Grief are dissociation, de-realization, and depersonalization.
On this track we will discuss replacement children. The case study on this track represents grieving clients who chose adoption shortly after beginning their grief-processing work with me. I was concerned that the couple may have been unconsciously trying to obtain replacement children. This track recounts parts of some of my therapy sessions regarding replacement children. Sound interesting?
I treated Jim, age 52, and Rita, age 53, after their son Matthew died in a car accidental fall. Jim, age 52, and Rita, age 53, had both taken early retirements. Matthew was 16 at the time of the accident. 14 years earlier, Jim and Rita’s first son had been killed by a drunk driver. The couple’s grief was accentuated by a bewilderment that such a tragedy could strike them twice. Jim stated, "I thought I had a guarantee with Matthew. If you lose one kid, you really don’t expect to lose another. I thought the odds of seeing him through were pretty good."
After their second son died, Jim and Rita searched for a renewed purpose. They tried many different things to ease the pain. Rita bought a new car. Jim tore apart his kitchen and installed new cabinets and tiled the floor. They began taking trips to international destinations such as France and Spain. Rita stated, "Nothing fills the void. It’s like a bottomless pit."
Rita later mentioned an adoption program for foreign orphans in one of our sessions. When Rita stated that she wanted to adopt, I felt it was important to uncover her true motivation. I was concerned that, like other clients I had treated in the past, Rita was trying to find a replacement child.
To find out if Rita was trying to find a replacement child... I discussed the topic with her. First I explained that replacement children may be children who are named after a close friend or relative of the client who has passed away. I also explained that replacement children can be conceived or adopted to replace a lost child. I asked, "Would your adopted child become a replacement child?" Rita admitted that she didn’t know if the orphan would become a replacement child. Rita stated, "I don’t know. I never thought about it like that. Do you think that’s why I want to adopt?" I told Rita that only she knew the answer to that question.
Next, I asked, "How do you imagine a child might feel knowing he or she is expected to replace someone else?" Rita stated, "I see what you’re getting at and I guess adoption could be a bad thing if the child felt burdened by our expectations for him or her to replace Matthew. I don’t feel that’s why I want to adopt, though."
I have found that replacement children may be highly valued, and, in some cases, may become the grieving client’s only sense of purpose. Therefore, I asked Rita what might happen if she lost the replacement child. Rita stated, "Eventually, I’m going to lose everyone, right? Jim and I aren’t elderly yet, but we are getting up there in our years. So I know I’ll lose Jim one day if I don’t go first. If I lost my adopted son or daughter, I would be devastated just as if I lost Jim. How else could I feel? But I’ve got a lot of love to give. And somewhere there is an abandoned child who needs that love."
Finally, I directed the subject toward Jim... by asking how he felt. Jim stated, "Our lives are empty right now. But if we can help some orphan out by giving him or her a good home, we can also help ourselves out despair. I don’t see how it could be a bad thing. Except for what Rita said about burdening the child with expectations. No one could replace Matthew, so if we adopt, the kid can’t be a replacement child."
I felt that Jim and Rita thoroughly understood their reasons for wanting to adopt. Would you agree? Jim had stated the mutual benefits of adoption. He and Rita could give the orphan a good home and give themselves a renewed sense of purpose. Therefore, I encouraged the Jim and Rita to proceed with their adoption plans.
Though most retirees may not consider adoption, Jim and Rita adopted two Russian orphans who were siblings. The children came from troubled homes, but Jim and Rita felt strongly that they could help the children.
In a later session, Jim stated, "I’m not going to say there were no adjustment problems. The kids are 13 and 16, so we have our share of issues! But having been abandoned in Russia, the children are very grateful to Rita and I. And I’m grateful to Rita. It really feels like I have something to live for all over again."
If Jim and Rita had wanted to replace their deceased son... Matthew by adopting, what negative impacts can you imagine for the adopted children? Do you agree that concern is warranted if clients are unconsciously trying to obtain a replacement child? Has a grieving parent of yours talked about adoption? Would Big Brothers or Big Sisters be an appropriate alternative to suggest?
On this track we have discussed replacement children. Because
I was concerned that Jim and Rita may have been unconsciously trying to obtain
replacement children, I took steps to uncover the couple’s true motivation.
Childhood Traumatic Grief Educational Materials
- Substace Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Childhood Traumatic Grief Educational Materials. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2004.
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