Everyday Psychoanalysis Blog 

Siblings on the roof terrace, Vincenzo Irolli

Author: Mary Adams

Sigmund Freud’s early childhood was marked by the highly significant trauma of the death of his baby brother, Julius, at six months old, when his mother turned away from him in grief, becoming a ‘dead mother’.  Freud was only one year old at the time.  He acknowledged in later life the difficulty he had exploring this early trauma:

Everything in the sphere of this first attachment to the mother seemed to me so difficult to grasp in analysis—so grey with age and shadowy and almost impossible to revivify—that it was as if it had succumbed to an especially inexorable repression. (Freud 1931, 226)

Among his earliest memories were guilt feelings about death wishes towards his dead brother which aroused in him a lifelong tendency toward self-reproach.  Freud’s family lived in a one-room apartment so he would have been exposed at first hand to his brother’s illness and perhaps even to his death. (Schur, 1972, 241).    In a letter to Fliess, he wrote, "I welcomed my one-year-younger brother . . .with ill wishes and real infantile jealousy, and his death left the germ of guilt in me.” (Schur, 1969, p. 305).  

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud wrote: “Deaths that are experienced in this way in childhood may quickly be forgotten in the family; but psychoanalytic research shows that they have a very important influence on subsequent neuroses.” Despite this awareness, Freud failed to give sibling loss in childhood the significance one would expect.  And despite the importance we give to early childhood trauma today, the psychoanalytic community often seems to disregard the possible impact of sibling death, even though Andre Green identifies the death of a child at an early age as ‘the most serious instance’ of the dead mother: “The mother remains physically present, but she has psychically 'died' for the surviving child”. (1986, p.149) 

Why is there resistance to exploring the often lifelong, crippling impact on the surviving child who has lost a sibling. Why is the concept of the ‘replacement child’ not more widely used?  

As I have described in my work on James Joyce, the life of the surviving child can be affected by a guilt they cannot explain, accompanied by fears that they caused the sibling death by wishing it and that they should not exist when the sibling had died.  (Joyce’s parents lost a son a year before he was born, and Ulysses revolves around a couple, Molly and Bloom, who lost a baby son.) 

Freud located guilt as Oedipal father/son rivalry, but also powerful for him was presumably survivor guilt and his hostility towards his mother.  In Sprengnether's view, ‘The Oedipal theory deflects rage toward the mother, redirecting it toward the father’. (1995, p. 46). 

It is disturbing to think how much a focus on Oedipal guilt may have distorted diagnostic assessment and subsequent treatment away from pre-Oedipal trauma.  Freud based key aspects of psychoanalysis on the case of ‘Anna O’, diagnosing hysteria while neglecting the fact that she had lost two sisters---one died three years before she was born and the second when she was eight. Similarly, both Ernest Jones and Freud failed to give significance to the fact that Joan Riviere’s parents lost their firstborn son a year before she was born.  (Hughes, 2004, p. 85)   Riviere wrote a detailed paper on Ibsen whose own parents lost their firstborn son. (Riviere, 1952, p. 178).  Harry Guntrip felt let down by both Winnicott and Fairburn for their failure to recognise the impact of losing his brother. (1996, 743) 

In his biography of Freud, Joel Whitebook describes the effect of dissociation in Freud: 

The traumatic experiences of Freud’s first four years were dissociated, not integrated into a coherent sense of self.  Although this defensive dissociation protected Freud and allowed him to function at an exceptionally high level, it also largely cut him off from the realm of early pre-Oedipal experience.  And because the world of archaic experience was too dangerous for Freud to explore---to do so might bring back the overwhelming anxiety and sense of helplessness he had experienced as a child---it could not be integrated into his theory.  (2017, p. 50-51)

I have found that patients who lost siblings in childhood, while strangely convinced they had caused the death and believing they are still dangerous to others, resist the idea they had been affected by the loss, even though, like James Joyce, they were plagued by guilt-filled nightmares of dead babies and murder.  Joyce spoke of ‘that skull’ that came to torment him at night.  In a letter he wrote: “Can you tell me what is a cure for dreaming?  I am troubled every night by horrible and terrifying dreams:  death, corpses, assassinations in which I take an unpleasantly prominent part.” (Ellmann, 1992)  

Jill Salberg, in her August IPA Blog, describes ‘hauntings’ transmitted from previous generations.  Child death is one such haunting, seen most graphically perhaps in patients who believe they had caused the sibling death when they hadn’t even been born.

Recognising the torment experienced by such patients and helping them to witness the power and delusionary aspects of their fear and guilt can be lifesaving.  

Mary Adams
is a psychoanalyst with the British Psychoanalytic Association, having completed her training in 1996.  She was a training analyst with the Association of Child Psychotherapists, has a particular interest in the work of Donald Meltzer and has written several papers using his ideas.  She is a past editor of the Journal of the British Association of Psychotherapy. Her book on James Joyce as a replacement child was published by Routledge in 2022.

Replacement Child Forum


Adams, M. (2022). James Joyce and the Internal World of the Replacement Child, Routledge.
Ellmann, R. ed. (1992). Selected Letters of James Joyce, Faber & Faber.
Freud, S. (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams, SE 4:ix, 627.
Freud, S. (1931). Female Sexuality, SE 21: 221-244.
Green, A. (1986). On Private Madness, London: Hogarth Press.
Guntrip, H. (1996). My Experience of Analysis with Fairbairn and Winnicott. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 77:739-754.
Hughes, J. M. (2004). From Obstacle to Ally: The Evolution of Psychoanalytic Practice,  Routledge. 
Riviere, J. (1952). The Inner World in Ibsen's Master-Builder,  International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 33: 173-180.
Salberg, J. (2023). Trauma Transmission Resides Across Multiple Generations, IPA Blog, 29 August 2023
Schur, M.  (1969).   The Background of Freud's “Disturbance” on the Acropolis. American Imago 26:303-323.
Schur, M. (1972). Freud: Living and dying. International UP.
Sprengnether, M. (1995). Reading Freud’s Life, American Imago, 52(1):9-54.
Whitebook, J. (2017).  Freud. An Intellectual Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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