Home LIFESTYLEMental Health I Was a Rainbow Baby

I Was a Rainbow Baby

by Katie Reed

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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7 comments

Sarah March 6, 2017 - 7:23 pm

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.

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Charlotte September 11, 2017 - 1:00 pm

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’

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Gabi October 10, 2017 - 12:17 am

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.

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Cassie May 24, 2019 - 6:45 pm

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.

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Kate May 24, 2019 - 10:21 pm

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.

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Beth August 31, 2019 - 3:56 pm

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 ❤❤

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Katie Reed September 6, 2019 - 9:07 am

<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

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