Two years ago, 5-month-old Cody Schmurr died from multiple congenital myopathy—a rare condition that made his muscles so weak he could not exhale the carbon dioxide from his lungs. Doctors told Cody's parents, Tracy and Steve Schmurr, that there was a one in three chance that their next child might suffer from the same problem. For the Livermore, Calif., couple, it was a risk worth taking. "I didn't want to ever turn back and say, 'I wish we would have'," says Tracy. "Even the five months with Cody were the best five months of my life." In June 2006, 13 months after Cody's death, Tracy delivered a healthy baby boy named Levi.
Every year, about 25,000 kids under age 10 die, most from congenital anomalies, unintentional injury (mainly car accidents), premature birth and cancer. It is the ultimate tragedy: kids aren't supposed to pass away before their parents. But sometimes they do. And then what? "Every family, at some point, evaluates whether they should have another child," says Kristin James, bereavement counselor at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "When that loss occurs, they're suddenly incomplete. You've defined yourself as a family of five, and now you're a family of four." The fear factor (will another child die, too?) often looms large.
The loss of a child can put tremendous stress on even the best marriages and the closest families. "Losing a kid makes you lose faith in life," says child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld. "To reclaim that faith in living, that it's worth doing this again, is an act of enormous courage." No one knows how many parents gather that courage—or how they fare. It's difficult to study. "You certainly can't randomly assign people to have a child or not have a child," says Douglas Hawkins, a pediatric oncologist at Seattle Children's Hospital. Yet, anecdotally, many experts say parents seem to do better when they try again. "The most profound attachment in human life is mother and child," says John Golenski, executive director of the George Mark Children's House, a residential facility in San Leandro, Calif., for kids with terminal illnesses and their families. "The best adaptation to [the loss of a child] is another attachment."
Still, another attachment is not for everyone. "Some families are willing to risk anything to hold a healthy baby. Some families can't imagine going through that pain again," says James. "It's very hard to convince them that this won't happen again. Their bubble of what they think is safe and normal is forever shattered." Even if they want to conceive again, some couples run into fertility problems. These families may—or may not—decide to adopt.
For one couple, the decision was made easier by their children, including their dying son. On Christmas Day in 1997, Joey Albrecht, 8, died of a rare pediatric cancer. "Two weeks before Joey died, he told us that when he got to heaven, he was going to tell God to send us a baby," says his mother, Cheryl Albrecht. Right after the funeral, Cheryl's daughter, Kelly, now 21, said, "Mom, the house is so quiet. Can we have another baby?" The answer: yes. In January 1999, Cheryl gave birth to Julia, now 8, followed by Nick, now 7. Cheryl remembers seeing Julia's heart beat on the ultrasound. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, my heart is starting to grow again'," she says. "I can love again. There is going to be happiness in my life."
Such feelings cause some parents to feel guilty. "What I do hear a lot is the feeling of, 'Am I betraying my child who died?' " says Barbara Sourkes, director of the pediatric palliative-care program at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. " 'How can I throw myself wholeheartedly into a new child and leave the child who died behind?' " Cheryl Albrecht says Julia and Nick have not replaced her Joey. "But they helped us love again and helped us keep happy," she says.
All parents worry about their kids' health and safety—more so when they've lost a child. Michelle and Bill McGowan's daughter Katie died last year, just before her first birthday. (She was born with a blockage in her intestine.) Four months ago, the McGowans, of Glenview, Ill., had a healthy baby boy, John. Michelle still attends a support group at Children's Memorial in Chicago, where moms talk about their fears that other offspring will die. "As a mom anyway, you can be paranoid. Now I'm paranoid to the nth degree," says McGowan. Even her older kids, Kylie, now 4, and Bill, now 6, worry. One day Kylie, concerned about John's getting a cold, said, "We can't touch him. He's going to die." Michelle reassured her that John would be OK. And every week after church, they visit Katie's gravestone, with a small butterfly etched at the top of the cross. (Experts say this sort of ritual is normal.) Michelle tells her kids, "Sometimes butterflies fly away, and you don't see them again." But sometimes they stay—and sometimes new ones are born.