My Experience Growing Up as a Rainbow Baby: A Personal Story

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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  1. I have a half brother and sister that have both passed on. My brother died when he was two, his death tore apart my father and first wife. If he had lived I would not have been born. I think about that all the time and can relate t some of your feelings on the matter. I look at my kids and am grateful I got this opportunity, but immediately guilty because it was a trade, life for a life. I am always hoping to make a positive difference in the world so when I see them someday, they will not think I wasted my opportunity. When I was a teenager I got mistaken for my deceased sister by someone who had clearly not been back to our small town in along time.

  2. I too am 35 year old rainbow baby. I Have only recently heard that term, having a friend who lost her first born and going on to have 2 more children. I loved my parents dearly (both have passed on) but felt my mum kept me at arms length where as dad was over protective. The mum my older siblings describe is not the same mum I grew up with. I grew up knowing I wouldn’t be here if my sister didn’t pass on. I also knew from a young age that, when my mum found out she was pregnant, she hoped I wasn’t a girl. I have mixed feelings.. I loved my mum and cared for her in the last few months of her life and became closer to her as a result but always felt like second best….
    Not having children myself, I can’t imagin what it’s like to lose a child, but I do feel for those labeled ‘rainbow bsbies’

  3. Thank you for writing this article you put into words exactly how I feel and it’s somewhat comforting to know that this feeling is shared among others. I constantly struggle with guilt and not feeling worthy of the life I was given.

  4. I am a rainbow baby and I feel the same in a lot of ways that you describe. I haven’t really ever been able to express this feeling because I feel that people who haven’t been in this situation wouldn’t understand. I feel grateful for my life but that gratefulness makes me feel guilty, like I’m grateful because my own sister died. And any wrongdoings make you wish you could trade places with that older sibling. It’s a very complex and confusing feeling, but I think we as rainbow babies have to remember that it wasn’t our fault and we deserve happiness just as much as anyone else.

  5. Thank you all for sharing. I am a rainbow baby too, I have always felt guilty because my older brother died and I got to live. There are no pictures of him but I was told that I looked just like him when I was born. I struggled years with guilty feelings but I also feel like he is a missing part of me.

  6. Thank you for sharing this. I’m a ‘rainbow baby’ who is 61yr old and caring for my 96yr old mother. I’ve never heard of anyone sharing the guilt, questions of worthlessness, and depression carried by some of us born after the loss of a baby. When my brother, Steven, was stillborn, my mother sank into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered. 18 months later I was born. My older sister said she lost her mom when Steven died and that I was supposed to fix it, but I didn’t. I’ve spent my life trying to gain my mother’s approval and to this day never feel that I have. And those nagging thoughts that it should’ve been him that lived, not me are hard when they surface. It’s a very hard place to hold in a family if it’s not handled well. I pray for the rainbow babies that they are allowed to grow in their own light and not the shadow of the lost sibling. Again, thank you for sharing ❤❤

    1. <3 <3 Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is definitely a difficult thing, and I think most parents who go through it do the very best they can - but it's a tragedy that is hard to recover from. My life has had a lot of depression and feelings of not being good enough, but thankfully I now have a beautiful family of my own and they think I'm the best mom in the world. That definitely helps a bit. I hope you know that you are an amazing and beautiful person who is valuable in this world. I can tell by your sweet and thoughtful words that you are a gift to those who know you. <3

  7. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad to have come across this blog entry. I was a rainbow baby of the early 80’s… born 6 days less than a year after a stillborn boy, Kevin. Neither me nor my mom could say when I was told about Kevin, but I imagine it was between 4 and 8. I do remember making myself cry while alone in my bed at night as I imagined my grandparents, in particular, dying. I don’t know if I was exploring what the idea of dying means or what. I also have the memory of being told things to the tune of, “it’s okay. Kevin died so that you could be born. You’re special, and you can be happy!” I have the idea I might have been introduced to these things when feeling/being sad, and it was for the purpose of perking me up. Mom called me a “miracle baby”, even though they conceived easily. I guess she just wanted a good, strongly-good word to describe me after the horrible loss, and that’s what she came up with. I was never close to my older sister growing up. I fell apart at age 19, never having experienced depression up until that point, but rather a pretty inflated sense of myself, contrary to reality as I was not prone to have many outings with friends and/or friends.
    I was good at being religious, compliant, and mirroring my parents’ ideas. My sister said I was the favorite,and she claimed to be so different from the rest of us that she must have been adopted.
    Upon getting familiar with the idea of having been a replacement child, I tried to stop the “he died “so that” I could be born” thought process with a tattoo that simply says “and then”. (It’s not in an easily visible location!). It was to try and get through my head that it was part of a storyline: Kevin died, and then I was conceived and born; I owe no extra debt in life due to taking “his spot”. The tattoo hasn’t really helped, but I still like it. It is good to rehash this a little as it’s been a long time since I got it.

  8. 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.

    1. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. I’m a 27 year old Rainbow Baby. My sister died before I was born when she was only two. I don’t think I really understood for a long time and I definitely didn’t understand the weight that was on me, even if no one had ever meant to put it on me. But Jamie died and I’m here and some days it just doesn’t seem like a fair trade, so I get completely what you’re saying. I actually got drunk and texted my sister a whole bunch of similar things to what you asked my parents just last week. It’s hard to grow up knowing if it wasn’t for death you wouldn’t be here. I guess I still don’t know how we’re supposed to be able to live with that.

  13. I am my family’s rainbow baby. I am the 2nd born after my sister Tiffany who died at birth as a full term baby. My mom has only managed to go to her grave once, with my help, and I will never ask her to go again. I think she may have gone on her own since then, but it was such a painful trip for her.. I am only glad that I was there to hold her as she cried. I think my sister would have wanted that. I am 38 now. It has also followed me for most of my entire life. I didn’t find out about her until I was about 7 years old. I’ll never forget the day. We were meeting my uncle from Iceland that we had never met before at my grandmother’s house and he thought that I was a girl named Tiffany. I innocently asked my mom who Tiffany was. I was even more confused because Tiffany was the name that my father sometimes called me and I would always state that I am Christie, not Tiffany. He was a drinker, and it was something he did often. It was not until this unknown man asked me if I was Tiffanythat I knew that I had to find out more. She told the man that I was Christie. On the way home from my grandmother’s that night, she told me about the baby that she had carried before me. She told me that Tiffany was ready to be born and something happened. She was told that she had to carry Tiffany inside of her for another month until she went into labor naturally, and then she had to birth her dead Tiffany. I was heartbroken. I cried all night, and for days and weeks. Idk if I will ever get over her death. She is a part of me that I never got to know or experience. I love her, of course, but I can’t help but to wonder how everything would have been different if she were here. My younger sister told me recently that I am the rainbow baby. I never really thought about it like that, but now, I can’t think of it in any other way. I think about Tiffany daily. She is the sister.. the big sister that I never got to have. I think it broke my parents to lose her, and my younger sister and I were left with the shell of them that she left behind. Thankyou for your story. I never knew that other people felt like I do about this. It’s never been easy. And I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about it before.

  14. Gurl I feel you. 36 year old rainbow baby here and once you said the line “if they didn’t die I wouldn’t be here” I’ve run that into the dang ground.

  15. I was very glad to read your article . I am 60 years old and tonite was the very first time I heard the term “rainbow baby “ and I realized I am one. My mother who was a recent immigrant to the US gave birth to my brother Paul – he only lived for a short while after birth – somehow he was born with some sort of defect in his digestive system . My father was unemployed at the time – so the baby was buried somewhere ( I am not sure where and this haunts me) I was born less than a year and a half later. My brother’s existence was kept secret – I found out as an older child by finding a picture of a baby buried in my mother’s under wear drawer with his name on it. My parents were conservative Europeans , refugees from war and communism and keep things locked up.
    My mother was very intense and anxious about both my younger sister and me and all of my life ( they have passed) I have felt that it was my responsibility to take care of them. All my life I have felt a deep deep hole in my heart ‘ missing and longing for the brother I never knew. I still cannot get over that we do not know where he is buried – I am attempting to find him so I can lay him to rest next to my parents buried in Hungary.
    One more uncanny thing that I related to in your story. I too have a distinct memory of being a toddler and “ floating “ down from the top of a radiator or that something helped me float down to prevent me from coming to harm . All my life the recall of that feeling has helped me believe in the presence of angels but not until I read your story and your father’s response did I realize that it may have been my brother’s presence.
    I send love to you and all of the other rainbow babys on this thread and out there – the carrying of unexpressed grief is great but I do believe we have come in to this lifetime with some connection to a greater love❤️

    1. Oh, Julie, thank you for sharing your story. It moved me. I can imagine how it haunts you that you don’t know where your brother is laid to rest. If you have your parents names and a general area to search, you may be able to find the death certificate and possibly look up burial records. I am genuinely sending you peace and love and hope that you’ll one day get your wish. <3

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