Understanding Travoltas' 'Replacement' Child

Having a baby soon after the death of a child is no panacea for grief.

ByABC News
May 19, 2010, 3:02 PM

May 20, 2010— -- It's a cruel term -- the replacement child -- that suggests a parent wipes out the agonizing grief of the death of one child with the birth of another.

This week actors John Travolta, 56, and his wife Kelly Preston, 47, announced that they were expecting a child, just one year after the loss of their 16-year-old son Jett, who died after having a seizure at their vacation villa in the Bahamas.

Jett was autistic and had endured a lifetime of such seizures.

"It's impossible to keep a secret ...Especially one as wonderful as this," wrote Preston, who is three months pregnant and due in November, on her official website. The couple also has a 10-year-old daughter Ella Bleu.

When a child dies, many parents have a "natural urge" to have another, according to Katherine Shear, professor of psychiatry and social work at Columbia University who specializes in complicated grief.

"A lot of parents do wish to have another child to come to terms with the loss," she said. "After they've accepted the loss, it's a very natural part of life and can be a very healing thing to do."

"When they do this, it's usually with a little bit of sadness and trepidation even when they know it's the right thing for them, and I don't think we should judge them," she said. "When they make that decision, it's a hard one to make and we should primarily support them."

Other psychologists say that having another child so quickly after such a tragic loss can compound the devastation, leaving the grief process unresolved.

The wife of new British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha are also making plans for a new baby, due in September. Their disabled son Ivan died at age 6 in February of 2009.

"The timing is obviously not absolutely ideal but we were very keen to have another baby after Ivan died and sometimes it takes a while before the stork drops one down the chimney," the Conservative politician told the Sun newspaper earlier this year. "But how difficult is it to cope with a new baby after the death of a beloved child?"

Of course they aren't the first parents to add to their family after a catastrophic loss. Embattled presidential candidate John Edwards and his estranged wife Elizabeth had two children after the death of their teenage son Wade when strong winds swept his Jeep off a North Carolina highway in 1996.

Though the couple had daughter Cate, who was 14 at the time, they went on to have two other children: Emma in 1998 and Jack in 2000.

"Nothing in my life has ever hit me and stripped everything away like my son's death," Edwards wrote in his 2004 book, "Four Trials."

Psychologists say that the grief of bereaving parents is the most intense of all sorrows and the most complicated.

"In Western culture, all feelings of hope and meaning and expectations are projected on to the child," said Therese Rando, a Rhode Island psychologist who wrote, "How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies"

Overcoming that grief can be difficult, especially if parents remember times they were angry with the child.

"When we lose a child, we feel our expectations are violated," said Rando.

"It's like losing a lung, it's so central," she said. "There is more guilt, more anger and more shattered pain, and other people in society are terrified of you because if it can happen to your child, it can happen to mine."

As the child's protector, we have "basically failed at the task" if a child dies, according to Rando. "We are assaulted. There is a sense of powerlessness and inability to carry out our role as parents."