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I Was a Rainbow Baby

I Was a Rainbow Baby

Yesterday was hard. My brother, Jacob, at exactly 12 weeks old, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on January 8th, 1979. I can’t imagine the devastation that this caused my parents and my older siblings. To have your new baby taken away from you forever is something no parent should ever have to go through.

I can’t remember ever NOT knowing that I had a brother who died. I was born three years after his death, with my mom having to have her tubes untied in order to conceive me. I grew up hearing “If Jacob hadn’t died, you’d never have been born.” My parents, and in particular my mother, suffered a tremendous amount of Catholic guilt. She convinced herself that he was taken from her because she’d had her tubes tied. She believed that it was a punishment from God.

When I was born, I was never out of her sight. She held me at all times. I was breastfed exclusively, I co-slept, and in the rare times that I was out of her arms, I was hooked up to heart monitors to ensure that I was always okay.

My mother says that I never cried. I never had a reason to. If anything bothered me – hunger, discomfort, pain – she was always there to soothe me. It became what I was known for – the good natured-baby who turned into a good-natured young girl.

The story goes that my father was angry when my mom became pregnant again. He was convinced that he couldn’t love me. After the death of his baby son, he didn’t believe he was capable of loving a new child. But as he tells it, he fell in love with me the second I entered the world.

I got a lot of that growing up. So much love and praise and adoration – the first child born after the death of another. It is only in the last year that I did the math and truly understood how old my parents were when they suffered this incredible loss – my mother was not yet 24, and my father was only just.

The term “rainbow baby” wasn’t one I’d heard until a few years ago. It is described as the baby born after the loss of a child. It is so named because if losing a child is like the worst storm of your life, the new child is the rainbow that appears to remind you that everything will be okay.

mother and baby

When I was seven, I remember standing in line at my school lunch, talking to my friends. I guess I must have recently started to process the life and loss of my brother because I remember talking to my group about our brothers and sisters. I proudly spoke up, “I have three brothers and a sister. But one of my brothers died when he was a baby.”  Immediately a hush fell over the group, and it was the first time I understood that this was a subject likely to make people uncomfortable. My hasty continuation did nothing to help the situation, as I blurted out, “But it’s okay. I’m glad he died. If he didn’t die, I wouldn’t be here.” You can believe the guilt of what I’d just said ate at me, but since it immediately shut down the pitying looks, it became my go-to response whenever the subject came up.

As I got older, I’d try and ask questions of my mother about Jacob. His memory had never left us, and the whole family spoke of him often. I imagine any parent who has experienced that loss just wants to make sure no one ever forgets their child. But for some reason, the guilt started to eat at me.

My mother would always say, “God has a plan. There is a reason for everything.” For a while when I was very young, I swore that I wanted to grow up and become a nun. Even at 3 or 4 years old, I felt like I needed to pay a debt to God, though I don’t know if that was because of Jake or just because that’s the kind of person I was.

We lived in the same house my brother had died in until I was five. I have some strange memories of that place, and to this day you can’t convince me they aren’t real. I swear that I used to float down the stairs. It happened again and again. I’d be standing at the top of our stairway, looking down, and I’d suddenly just… float. I’d land safely at the bottom and go on my way. It didn’t seem weird at the time, but eventually I realized that that was a bit odd, so I told my mom. She brushed me off. “You were dreaming.” I swore I wasn’t. It was real.  Years later, I brought it up again, and she again brushed it off. “You used to jump down the stairs into a pile of laundry. It wasn’t from the top. It was from a few steps up.”  But that wasn’t it, either. I remembered jumping in the laundry. It was a totally separate memory from the floating. I eventually brought it up with my dad, who is generally more of a skeptic. He just stared off for a minute and said, “I believe you. I think it was your brother, Jake, carrying you down the stairs.”

Jacob’s memory was not mine. He died before I was born, and I didn’t know him. But my whole life was spent in his shadow. I pushed myself in everything I did because I thought that he might be looking down on me, resentful. What kind of life would he have led if he’d been given the chance? He’d assuredly have done more and been better than I. I lost hours of sleep each night thinking about it, comparing my life to the one he didn’t get to live. I prayed to God again and again to let us trade places. Bring him back and take me instead.

My teen years were spent in severe depression with episodes of self harm that I hid from my family. I became obsessed with the occult, thinking I could find a way to commune with my brother.

We used to visit his grave once or twice a year, but eventually I couldn’t make myself get out of the car anymore. I would just sit in there and cry.

One year, when I was in my mid-20s, I went out on the town on what would have been his birthday. I sat in a bar, tipping back drinks and talking to my older brother about what he remembered from the time when Jacob died. His main memories were of my mother screaming and of everyone being sad. He was three at the time.

I went home and drunkenly confronted my folks. I raged against God and demanded to know if it was my fault. Did they blame me? I could see their shock and upset, but I railed at them. They calmed me down eventually. “Of course we don’t blame you. You weren’t even born yet.”  My dad took me to my room, leaving me with some crackers and a bucket to be sick in, as I was clearly well past my limit. The next day, in my hungover state, he simply asked if I was feeling better. I nodded, ashamed of how I’d acted. Dredging up the past for no reason.

I was a rainbow baby. I was supposed to bring sunshine back into their lives. But when I look back on the last almost 34 years that I’ve been here, I wonder. Was it a fair trade?

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Kathy

Tuesday 5th of October 2021

I cannot thank you enough for writing this. I am a 43 year old rainbow baby. My sister died at 10 weeks, 16 months before I was born. I only heard the term after my own children were born but I lived my childhood and adolescence feeling that I was the consolation prize. I knew my parents loved me. My mum was soooo overprotective. I still carry some guilt at surviving when my sister didn't and wonder what her life would be like now. To make things worse for my parents, I was also a sick baby, who apparently played the stop breathing game regularly. All my parents have kept from my first year of life is 1 photo and mum's diary, with all the hospital appointments. My sister has cards, professional photos (one of which was displayed at my nana's house and I remember the confusion when I first realised I wasn't the baby in the photo - there has never been a professional family photo with me in it). As a child and teen my older brother quickly learnt to play the "wrong sister died" card when we fought. Now, as a parent, I can now look back on my childhood through very different eyes and have therefore grown much closer to my mum. Similarly, my brother would be horrified if I told him how his words hurt (I am sure he doesn't remember them and I would never remind him). I am also very grateful that parents who lose a child are better cared for than they were back then. However, as someone who works with teens, I can't help but worry a little for all the babies being born and celebrated as rainbow babies these days. No child should be defined by their relationship to someone else. They are unique and deserve to be celebrated in their own right. They are not there to lessen the loss or the hurt.

A Wave of Light - Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day | It's a Mother Thing

Friday 1st of October 2021

[…] more. My brother died of SIDS at three months old, and my whole life has been colored by that loss. I was the rainbow baby born after he had […]

Janet

Thursday 30th of September 2021

Thank-you for your thought-provoking blog post!

My younger sister and I are Rainbow babies. My parents had two daughters that died before we were born. Susan was about 9 months old from a type of skin allergy and Jean never left the hospital. She had Spina bifida and only lived a few days. About 11 months later, I was born.

My parents were helicopter parents before there was such a thing. When I hit about 10 or 11, I guess they figured out that I was going to live and they became much more casual in their parenting style at that point.

We grew up knowing that we had two sisters but we never knew much about them. The loss was hardest on Mom. I feel sorry that she never had the access to any therapy for what she must have gone through. She was sweet but always a bit detached with Margie and me. I used to overthink aspects of things. Dad had mentioned that they had planned for a family of two children but we were 3 and 4(technically). Was I the oldest or technically a middle child? If Susan and Jean had lived there wouldn't have been a Janet and Margie. Was it okay to be happy that I was alive because it was only because they died. Did our parents ever wish that they had Susan and Jean rather than Janet and Margie?

My parents were good people and we were certainly loved and cared for but there is a whole psychological minefield when you survive and the other kids did not.

Alison

Sunday 26th of September 2021

Thank you for writing this. I’ve always had difficulty expressing how being a rainbow baby affected me. I was born 11 months after my 9 year old brother died from an enlarged heart. He was a great kid and my parents were crushed. I do have a sister who was 7 at the time and I sometimes think about how I will never know the people my parents were before my brother died. To make matters worse, at ten years old I developed the same heart condition that killed my brother. I was able to live thanks to a heart transplant and I’ve always felt tremendous guilt for surviving when he didn’t. I think this has had a bigger impact on my life than I like to pretend. Thank you for sharing your story it helps to know others have survived similar.

Joyce

Friday 6th of August 2021

Thanks for writing this article, it makes me feel a lot less alone. I have a brother who died as an infant and me and my twin sister are "rainbow children" who never met him. I remember being told about him from a very young age and feeling lots of confusing emotions (sadness, guilt, anger, fear, confusion, annoyance) because my parents would be absolutely distraught when talking about him, and there was nothing me or my sister could do to comfort them. My parents didn't deal with their grief properly and have said some very destructive things to us about "this" out of anger and pain (ex: accusing us of not caring, never thinking about him etc). I wish my parents had received therapy before having me and my sister, but they didnt. We're both in our 30s now and I'm going to therapy. I've had to explain to my parents (much to their disappointment) that if I ever have a son I won't be using our brother's name because I dont want to burden any future children with such strong emotions and expectations. I feel sorry for my parents but I'm also upset with how their grief has affected our family. It's very difficult to ask a child to grieve for someone they have never met and never will meet.

Katie Reed

Wednesday 11th of August 2021

I am so sorry you can relate to this. It is very difficult growing up in the shadow of another, but I'm so happy that you are going to therapy and working through everything. I think back then, people were much less ready to deal with emotions through therapy, and it made it that much harder for the family to cope. I truly hope you and your sister (and your parents) are able to move on toward a level of personal growth that allows everyone to be happy. My heart is with you all. <3

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