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A Missionary on Trial

Kramlich left S.H.C. after less than four months. In her resignation letter, she told the board, “Although Renee is very intelligent, quick to catch on, and unquestionably dedicated and motivated, the fact remains that she has no formal training in the medical practice with which she works every day.” Kramlich added that it seemed “unreasonable, and even dangerous, that an untrained person like Renee should be in a supervisory position.” Nonetheless, she wrote, she was grateful for the experience: “There were so many parts of Serving His Children that were such a blessing to be a part of.”

Kramlich moved back to the United States in 2015. Her concerns might have been forgotten if not for a friend of hers: Kelsey Nielsen, an American social worker who was part of the same insular missionary world in Jinja. In 2018, Nielsen began an influential social-media campaign, called No White Saviors, that took aim at the failings of Western aid in Africa. Bach became her primary target. “Kelsey, she got it in her mind that it had not been dealt with,” Kramlich told me. “She starts up this whole No White Saviors page, and she was going after Renée. I was, like, Oh, boy—buckle up. She’s a very passionate person, even when she’s completely stable.”

“I feel like this is happening at the right time in my life,” Kelsey Nielsen said at a café in Philadelphia, when she was in town visiting her mother, who lives in nearby Collegeville. If she were younger, the success of No White Saviors might have gone to her head, but Nielsen was about to turn thirty, and, after a decade of intermittent work in Uganda, she felt ready to lead a movement that was about issues, not egos. “People come up to us and treat us like we’re celebrities,” she said. “People online, too.” In a year and a half, the campaign has attracted more than three hundred thousand followers. “It’s a lot of human beings. And it’s fast.”

Nielsen lives most of the year in Kampala, where she shares an office with Olivia Patience Alaso, a Ugandan social worker with whom she founded No White Saviors, and Wendy Namatovu, a more recent addition to the team. (They met when Namatovu, who worked at the coffee shop that Nielsen and Alaso frequented, recognized them from their Instagram account and introduced herself.) Their goal is to “decolonize development,” by holding missionaries and humanitarians accountable for the assumption of white supremacy underlying their charity. In Uganda, No White Saviors hosts consciousness-raising workshops. On social media, it chides celebrities for enhancing their reputations by adopting African children, solicits funds for favored causes, and offers inspirational messages. (For Valentine’s Day: “Roses are red, personal boundaries are healthy, ‘justice’ systems protect the white and the wealthy.”) But the Bach story is what has propelled the group to prominence.

As the story broke in the international press, Alaso gave an impassioned interview to Al Jazeera. “People have taken Africa to be an experimental ground where you can come and do anything and walk away,” she said. “If it was a black woman who went to the U.S. or any part of Europe and did this, they will be in jail right now—but, because of the white privilege, this woman is now free.” No White Saviors was subsequently cited by NBC News, “Good Morning America,” and ABC News. The BBC released a video introducing the “founders of the movement,” showing Nielsen, a white woman with reddish hair in a blue Hawaiian shirt, bumping fists with Alaso, a thirty-two-year-old with short hair and an intense stare.

Nielsen first volunteered in Uganda in 2010, at an orphanage called Amani Baby Cottage—the place where Bach had worked two years earlier. Unlike Bach, Nielsen felt alienated by her fellow-missionaries in Jinja. “I had a bit of a different upbringing than a lot of the other white women that end up there,” she said. “I grew up poor—single-parent household, abusive father.”

For years, Nielsen blogged about the mental illness that she inherited from her father, and the ways in which he tore her down. “I did what all good daughters of abusive/absent Fathers do,” she wrote in 2016. “I became a chameleon who could mold into whatever my audience wanted.” When Nielsen was fourteen, her father died. “I went from being a straight-A student to then running away from home for a week at a time,” she told me. “That was like the marker, if you look back, on my bipolar disorder manifesting.”

Ultimately, Nielsen was able to get into Temple University, but needed five years to graduate, because she kept going back to Uganda to volunteer. In the college newspaper, Nielsen described her life in Jinja much as Bach had: “Making trips to the local hospital to pay for a 4-year-old with sickle cell to have a blood transfusion, making home visits to the village.” She’d had malaria three times, but, she told another paper, “I just love loving the Ugandan people. I could get malaria a thousand times and still feel this is where I need to be.”

Though Nielsen didn’t overlap with Bach at Amani, she was well aware of her. To Nielsen, Bach and her friend Katie Davis “were, like, the cool girls of Jinja.” Davis, another missionary, came to Uganda at eighteen, and within five years had become the legal guardian of thirteen Ugandan girls, whom she wrote about in her best-selling memoir “Kisses from Katie.” Nielsen said, “Honestly, I remember wanting to be friends with Katie and Renée. They’re the cool, young missionaries, starting their own N.G.O.s, adopting children.” She recalled a New Year’s Eve party at Bach’s house in 2011: “All white people and their adopted black children.”

A princess talks to her friend about dating Prince Charming.

“Things are going great with Prince Charming. The problem is his parents, King Cruel and Queen Haughty.” Cartoon by Liana Finck

Nielsen described her feelings toward Bach and Davis as simultaneously envious and disdainful. “I always thought that I was a little bit better than them, because I actually went to school for what I was doing,” she said. Nielsen started her own N.G.O. in 2013, with a fellow-missionary she’d met at Amani. They called it Abide, and they sought to encourage impoverished families not to relinquish their children to orphanages, by giving parenting classes and helping them pay living expenses. (Nielsen thinks of herself now as a “white savior in recovery.”)

Toward the end of 2013, a sick child named Sharifu stayed for several months in Abide’s emergency housing. Nielsen posted pictures of him on Facebook, and Bach, noticing them, remembered that he had been treated at S.H.C. that spring. “We have a huge medical and history file on him,” Bach wrote to Nielsen. “I can have someone get that to you.” She added, with a frowny-face emoji, “It’s super sad we live in the same town but never get to see each other.” Nielsen sent a friendly reply: “We really need to fix the lack of hanging—coffee or breakfast?” She went on to say that Abide was also hosting Sharifu’s grandmother, and training her in “parenting/attachment development.” If that didn’t work, they would have to consider having Sharifu adopted—his father, she said, posed a risk to his safety.

Nielsen told Bach that one of her social workers would follow up with Bach’s employees, but no one did. Sharifu got sicker, and Nielsen and her colleagues took him to a hospital in Kampala, where he was given a diagnosis of heart problems. “They started raising money online, because they couldn’t get him discharged without paying the bill,” Bach recalled. She told Nielsen that S.H.C. would cover the shortfall. “I literally met her on the side of the road one day and handed over the money, and Kelsey was, like, ‘Thanks, see ya,’ ” she said. “Then they made this social-media post that they had gone to see his cardiologist and that it was like this miracle: he’s healed! And that night the kid just died. Then I started seeing her around town, and she would just look like she was going to kill me.”

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Karen Robinson Walton: I am looking at him. I say ‘Benjamin, what have we done?’

She is sitting on the sofa in her front room. Benjamin on the wall opposite smiles back. Karen Robinson Walton[1] raises her arms above her head and brings her hands together. Her finger tips almost touch.

“When the wave hits,” she says. Still. Now. Nine years on the wave hits. The wave doesn’t stop hitting and at night time, very often, the wave breaks around her. When it does it is her son Benjamin. She finds herself speaking to him.

It is always Benjamin. She calls him by name. She tells him not to worry. She talks to him about what she has done and what is coming up and she asks him what he has been doing. She consoles him. She lets him know how desperately he is missed.

She retells old stories and she sings the songs they sang in the car on their way to school in Carrickfergus. They can be ordinary, trivial conversations or they can be haunting, unsettling and painful.

“Yes I speak to him. Sometimes in the night,” she says

“Why can’t I go out?” he asks.

“Because no one can see you,” she answers.

Benjamin is not far away from his home in the town high on the northeast coast with its wooden groins slanting down the beach to the sea and drills of kelp tossed up on Fisherman’s Quay.

The funeral was like today says Karen. It was also raining in 2011 as they took him from the Joymount Presbyterian Church along the marine highway to Victoria Road and the cemetery.

On that day she recalls the certainty in her world ended and its axis tilted into shadow. She has had to learn how to try to lean into the wave.

“The grief is like a fire,” she says. “It is always alight. It is smouldering or it is like a furnace. You will have manageable days. The carefree attitude has gone. Taking life for granted, possibly.

“It was like a film reel. You go through it all and it’s not real. Now it is how it is. In six months’ time it is going to be different. When it happened I didn’t know what was real and what was not real.”


On the morning of the rugby match on January 29th nine years’ ago Karen had her fears. She couldn’t say why; imperceptible hesitations in Benjamin, his barely concealed nervousness; phrases in which her 14-year-old son questioned his ability and worth to the team. She sensed the exaggerated importance of winning for the school.

It was a Medallion Shield match. Carrickfergus Grammar had never gotten so far in the competition. The game was supposed to have been played on the Tuesday and Karen couldn’t juggle it her way because of her work in the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

But Benjamin texted to say the bad weather had caused the match to be postponed. It would be moved to Saturday. That same Saturday her daughter also had a hockey match with the school. But she played football too with a game scheduled for the Friday night. Karen re-organised her mental diary. It would be supporting her daughter on Friday and her son on Saturday. The hockey match would be cut loose.

She can remember that the football match ran on. She was late coming home. Benjamin had wanted pasta for dinner. But it was Friday and, well, anyway there was a takeaway close by. As they sat in the kitchen, Benjamin eating KFC and an Oreo Krushem, turned to his mother.

“Tomorrow I can’t let anybody down,” he said.

Karen reassured him. “If you do your best you won’t let anyone down,” she said. But he wasn’t making himself clear.

“No,” he repeated. “I can’t let anybody down.” His mother again consoled him. She tucked it away.

The match was important to him and even so that week Benjamin had forgotten his PE kit for school. If you don’t bring your kit to school you cannot do the right training and your name does not make it on to the playing list. So they let him hold the rucking pads. Committed, he stood in his school uniform as the boys crashed into the tackle bags. For the weekend match he was picked to play at outside centre.

The night before Benjamin’s mind was firmly fixed on the rugby and when they finished the KFC in the kitchen, he disappeared upstairs. The next time his mother spoke to him, he was fully dressed in his rugby kit.

He had on the new waterproof school training top. He wore it with the socks, shorts, shirt and jersey of Carrickfergus Grammar. That night before the match against Dalriada, Benjamin slept in his school rugby uniform.

Saturday morning was the typical rush of slamming cars doors, kit bags and missing shin guards. Karen drove first to the school for the hockey match and when she came back to the house Benjamin was up complaining that he had eaten all the cereal during the week and more had not magically reappeared. He’d had only a banana.

“I tell him ‘you can’t play a game of rugby on a banana,’” says Karen. So she makes him scrambled eggs. She says when she was beating the eggs there is a voice in her head. She knows people are sceptical. She has said it to people and they say ‘Yeah right.’

Beating the eggs the voice said ‘this is the last time you will do this.’ She was sceptical herself. “Eat your eggs and let’s go,” she said.

They drive. First they drive to the garage. Benjamin gets his match Lucozade. He’s a confident child, says Karen but try and get him to go up and pay. Mum pays. He has his phone with his earbuds in on one side so he can speak and listen to the music at the same time. They talk about Manchester United. They talk about the rugby game.

She says what she knows about rugby is you throw the ball backwards to go forwards.

They drive to the school and pull in. Again she feels the apprehension in her son, thinks Benjamin might not get out of the car. She tells him she is going back for Steven (her husband and Benjamin’s stepdad). Reassures him that she is going to grab a coffee and shoot back to the school for the game. Benjamin jumps out and his mother pulls away from the school.

Benjamin, says Karen, is a clever kid. He was occupying that passage in time between being the child and the teenager moving towards an ever independent life. The charm, the potential, that she loved about him and more; his vulnerability his reliance on her and his attachment.

The joy she got from his requirements and the strong, tender emotions he drew from her; the energy he demanded; the care he needed and his freewheeling carelessness, the life he was creating for his mother before her eyes.

With children it is sometimes as much about what they want from you as what they give to you. And their constant demands give back more than people can imagine. It is the child’s charter.

What began on the Saturday morning as a series of routine family chores have become frozen in time as the most immediate and precious of memories. The garage, the Lucozade, the fretting conversation, still pristine and distinct are each a sacred chapter in the unspooling of the day.

The rugby match had started when Karen arrived back with her coffee.

“The first thing I see is Benjamin running from the left to the right into a group of guys,” she says. “It was the impact. The sheer force of it caused his body to make a whiplash movement. I had never seen him play like that.

“I was at one side of the pitch so I am seeing it from that angle. The more I watch the more stoppages there seemed to be . . . the water being poured over his head. Every stoppage, he seemed to be involved in them all. Everything. As it goes on I’m thinking he’s done his bit. This is schoolboy rugby. This is a level I am not happy with. By half-time I’d seen enough.”

The inquest into the death, held in the County Court Division of Belfast from August 29th to September 3rd, 2012; September 5th and 6th, 2012 and September 2nd and 3rd , 2013 before Coroner Ms S M Anderson, contradicts what Benjamin’s mother witnessed.

“I find that the first half of the match passed without any major incidents involving Benjamin,” states the report in its summing up of findings dated September 3rd, 2013. It is not how Karen saw the match.

“I discuss my fears with Steven and ask him to go on, which was not unusual because I have been on the pitch a few times,” she says. “But as soon as he’d see me it was like ‘it’s okay mum. You don’t have to come on. I’m good.’ So, it was like ‘please don’t come on mum. It’s embarrassing.’ I’d just say yes but you are my son and I have to check that you are okay.

“So I said to Steven go and get him on his own. Then the second half started and I said to Steven ‘where is Benjamin, did you speak to him?’ ‘No . . . but the referee says he’s an enthusiastic wee player.’

“I said no, no. I don’t care if he’s a good player or not. I need to see if he’s okay. The referee waved over. So it was yeah, okay. Then my daughter arrived with her friends and the game progressed. It was blow after blow.

“Shortly after there was a stoppage again. I knew it was Benjamin. Right I’m adding all these things up in my head and I’m getting uncomfortable and almost tearful. It is the usual faces around a rugby pitch. It’s mostly males. I’m here with no rugby knowledge and then there is a lineout going on in front of me.

“Benjamin is to my right. He has a big smile on his face. He has his hand out and he’s going ‘I can’t remember this.’ That fills me with horror. What is he saying. He should not be laughing. I remember shouting ‘Benjamin, Benjamin, Benjamin.’”

“A friend of Benjamin’s sister from school is nervously laughing saying ‘he’s not remembering this.’ The referee tells me to calm down. He just says to me to ‘calm down mum.’ I’m thinking I have to get Benjamin on his own. I follow the run of play. I remove myself from the group of people. I am aware the game is nearly over.

“But I see Benjamin. His back is to me. I think he is gauging the ball. He is staggering and he puts his hand up to his ear. I call his name. ‘Benjamin, Benjamin are you okay?’ He turns around. He has his hand out. He is exasperated. He says ‘I don’t feel right.’

“I am about to step on to the pitch. He is six or 10 feet away and he is sucked away, sucked back in. But he’s not gauging the play because the play is over there [right] and he is walking there [left]. I am adding these things up in my head and I’m aware people are shouting ‘ref blow the whistle.’ I just can’t get to him. I need him too . . . and then there’s a stoppage.

“I remember then while I am shouting ‘get to your feet wee son,’ I am already running. Yes, I’m on that pitch and I am running. His captain meets me halfway. He says it is Benjamin. He’s out cold. I get to my son and he is on his back. He is by himself. I kneel down beside him.

“It’s the whites of his eyes. He is on his back. He is making a gasping sound and the whites of his eyes. I am down on my knees and I hold him. I hold his arm. They are still playing. It is seconds. There is nobody else with me. His eyes close. I tell him I am here. I tell him mummy is here.”

The team captain comes over. Karen tells him to go get Steven. A doctor, who is a consultant anaesthetist, arrives over from the crowd. St John’s ambulance paramedics arrive. The doctor asks them for “bits and pieces” of equipment and he inserts an oral airway. The coach comes over. She remembers him making a call.

She remembers picking Benjamin’s yellow and blue mouth guard from the ground and as his sister moves to come over her mother tells her to stay away. Then Steven comes over from the crowd to assist and looks at Karen. She is frozen standing alone. Staring and standing. Steven looks at her and doesn’t understand what she is doing.

“I get up. I step away from Benjamin. In the middle of it there is calmness,” she says. “It is over. But that calmness, that acceptance is replaced with panic. What you are doing is futile, I’m thinking. But you are grasping. You are panicking. Then it is blue lights in the ambulance. I tell Steven to ring Benjamin’s dad. We are trying to get through traffic. And the traffic won’t move.”

Karen Robinson Walton is comforted after speaking to the media following the inquest into the death of her son Benjamin. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA WireKaren Robinson Walton is comforted after speaking to the media following the inquest into the death of her son Benjamin. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire************************

Almost every rugby player will say they have had one. They will have had a ding. They will have had a bump, a clash of heads, a smack, a thump, a clatter, a jolt, a rattle. Very rarely will a rugby player say they have had a traumatic brain injury. But almost every rugby player will say they have had their bell rung, they have sparked out for a few seconds.

The Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS) is a scoring system. It is used to describe the level of consciousness in a person following a traumatic brain injury. It is used to help score the severity of the collision and therefore what treatment is required.

The test is simple and correlates closely with outcome and is used by trained staff in emergency departments and intensive care units for common injuries associated with car crash victims or a sports injury like that suffered by Benjamin.

Eye opening, verbal responses and motor responses are marked on a scale and then each measure is added together for an overall number. The lowest mark for verbal responses is zero and the highest mark is five, the lowest number for motor response is zero and highest six and the lowest mark for eye opening is zero with the highest four.

Mild brain injuries measure 13-15 on the GCS scale, moderate trauma is in the range of 9-12 and severe injuries measure eight or less. Benjamin’s Glasgow Coma Scale was three.


The ambulance moves him along the coast from Carrickfergus into the north of the city and through the centre into west Belfast and the Royal Victoria Hospital. The medics work tirelessly, pumping oxygen by hand through Benjamin’s airwaves. The doctor asks for a specific drug, a powerful anti-inflammatory. But it is a controlled substance. They do not have it on board.

“We get to the hospital and we have to leave Benjamin,” says Karen. “I have to register him. But I need to be with my son. We are taken to a room away from the main waiting area. I say to Steven we are not in this room for good news.

“At some stage the coach arrives, the headmaster arrives. But where is Benjamin. I need to see him. What is happening. Then one of the nurses sees me. I say I’m looking for Benjamin. We haven’t been told anything I say.

“She tells me concussion happens all the time. Her brother plays rugby. He’ll be fine. She remembers me from being in the hospital in December through my own work. ‘Yeah, yeah that’s what I do,’ I tell her. But I’m here as a mum.

“I’m in and out and in and out. During one of those stages of being in and out I find out where Benjamin is. The entire time he has been in the room opposite. But I’m not allowed to go in there.

“A consultant comes in. He is very professional. He speaks in medical terms. I ask him bluntly is my son going to make it? He tells me he can’t call that. Okay. My parents arrive in on all of this and we are taken to another level. I haven’t seen Benjamin. We are shown into another room. I am battling with this acceptance and so hanging on for a miracle.

“Outside the door in the hallway I see the nurse who I had spoken to earlier and who told me her brother plays rugby. She is walking alongside a male. I can see her hit her head with her hands. I know what’s coming. I just don’t want . . . no please . . . no please do not come into this room. Don’t come in. He comes in.

“He speaks and I am trying to absorb the information. He is saying there is nothing there for him to operate on. He is saying Benjamin’s brain has swollen so badly it has gone down into his spinal column. My husband asks of all the cases he has dealt with what is the percentage of survival. He says none. Nobody has survived.

“Then I am aware of loud sound, this noise, this screaming, this guttural wail inside the room we are in. It is coming from me. I am on the floor.

“In a bit the consultant then asks do I want to see him? Of course I want to see my son. And he’s there. Just lying there. On his head is a neck brace. He is wired up to things. I am looking at him. I say ‘Benjamin, what have we done?’

“Then I ring his father Peter in Scotland. I say to him ‘your son is dying.’


Even then, when the facts have been stacked up and the human catastrophe laid bare in simple, painful language, something kicks in and hope does not perish. It inflates and distorts and combines with fear and incomprehension. Alongside the paralysing shock and indignation, hope always remains.

Staff in the hospital place a blue gauze across Benjamin’s brow because he is not blinking and his eyes are drying up. His mother tries to remain upbeat while she is with him, sings and tells him stories from childhood. His cousins arrive and they talk to him, try to stimulate a response.

The medics use a cooling technique to try and bring his temperature down. They attempt more than once to take him off life support. But his body cannot sustain life by itself. He is lying on the bed with a Manchester United towel covering his body.

“When I leave him I’m screaming for help. I am fighting. I am punching, kicking walls. I remember I am on the floor of the hospital and a nurse coming over to me and saying ‘you can’t lie there.’

“I tell them ‘do something. I know I am not coming across very well. They take me down to A&E and they are giving me Diazepam and I am angry.

“I tell them my son deserves better. I tell them I have private health insurance. I tell them I can take him. Wherever. It’s not an issue. I can take him. I tell them I can pay for him. I am pleading with them for my son’s life.

“I do remember saying to Benjamin . . . I say Benjamin you need to do something here. I say to him this is not the same as me telling you to clean your room and me knowing you are going to do it at some stage. I say Benjamin if you don’t do something now this is it.”

It is Monday just before three in the afternoon. The hospital injects cold water into Benjamin’s ears. They check his pupils which are fixed and dilated. Brainstem testing is carried out at 2.55pm and again at 4.14pm. There is nothing. His mother is present while they are conducting the tests.

“Then you hear those words ‘time of . . .’ My world explodes . . . time of . . .”

The hours after are blurred. There are formalities. Karen remembers the hospital staff keep saying to her ‘sudden death, sudden death.’ They mention organ donation. There is a minister to call a funeral to arrange.

She says “nope” to the organ donation. Traumatised and medicated, exasperation and fury spill over. “My son didn’t get a miracle go away,” she tells them. Shortly after she says yes to consent.

She learns later the organ team are already in the building. They give her a standard form to move forward with the transplant operation and ask her to fill it in. How many sexual partners? Has he had any sexual diseases?

An oversight. The dumb, asinine bureaucracy of it cuts. “He’s 14. He’s a child.”

They tell her a team will be flying in from the UK for the organs and that Benjamin would be going for surgery. They ask her does she want to go home. She has not left the hospital since arriving in the ambulance on Saturday.

It is now Monday, January 31st, the official date Benjamin is pronounced dead from what will be shown to be a series of concussive blows to the head during the schools rugby match. It is called Second Impact Syndrome. It will be the first case officially recorded in Ireland and the UK.

Karen has a photograph, which she carefully removes from a zip folder on her lap. It is the last picture taken of Benjamin by his father Peter in the hospital. It is the night before going down to theatre again for his organs to be harvested and given to six different recipients.

In it Karen is lying on a bed pushed up snug to that of Benjamin. Her eyes are closed. One arm is reaching across to her son. Perfect, he is lying on his back, the damage unseen. He is attached to tubes and monitors and his upper torso is exposed. The Manchester United towel covers his lower half.

“I have Benjamin that night,” says Karen remembering their final intimacy. It is a treasured physical connection. “I sleep beside him. I explain to him what is happening because he doesn’t like strangers. I say to him ‘I am going to be here for you when you get out of theatre.’”

She waits. When the procedure is complete the hospital staff come to collect her. She makes to go back to the ward and they say ‘no this way.’ She is shown into a room where Benjamin is lying on a gurney. There are no tubes. There is no wiring. There are no machines attached to him, nothing. There is nothing in the room except Benjamin on a table.

“This is not how I told my son it would be,” she says. “He is so cold, so very, very cold and he is wet. His hair is soaking. I was not prepared for that. I guess you watch movies, you watch TV and you think that it is all done and everything is switched off and you hold their hand. No.

“We arrive home on the Tuesday night. It feels almost like I am unwell, I am sick and that this is not happening. But it is. It is happening. I sleep in Benjamin’s bed. I sleep in his pyjamas and I sleep in his bed for a very long time after that.”

There is joyless exhaustion, a never before experienced pain. The sustained, high-octane shock does not diminish the numb dislocation. But for Karen the prospect of Benjamin coming home generates a surreal high, a distorted sense of euphoria.

She knows it is misplaced and will not last. No matter, her son will be resting not with strangers in an unfamiliar building but among his family. From the sterile functionality of the hospital, they bring him back to the front room of his house.

Still fuelled by shock, the conversation with the local minister Karen says was lucid. She gives him three of Benjamin’s favourite songs by Semisonic, Linkin Park and Metallica that she asks to be played in the church along with the traditional hymns and The Lord’s Prayer.

She advises the minister that if there are any references to the devil or if there are lyrics that are inappropriate to come back to her. She is insistent but does not wish to cause offence to the congregation. That night she sleeps on the sofa in the sitting room beside her son.

“He is in his suit,” she says. “I was married in 2010 and Benjamin gave me away and he’s in his suit. I fix his hair and I feel the cold staples in his scalp.”

Benjamin Robinson became the first person to die from a recorded Second Impact Syndrome in Ireland and the UK. Photograph:Benjamin Robinson became the first person to die from a recorded Second Impact Syndrome in Ireland and the UK. Photograph:************************

Throughout she talks to Benjamin, sometimes quietly, sometimes out loud. As people flow into the house, she tells him who has arrived and who the important people are and what family members are there to see him.

She says to her 14-year-old son “it’s getting kind of serious.” All these people. Coaches, teachers, locals. Then she fills the casket with the things she knows he will need on his journey.

“I pack his X-Box. He’s got his Doritos. He’s got his money. He’s got his mobile phone. He’s got his pot noodles and that’s what goes along with him. They are all packed in with him. It’s like he is going on holiday. I leave when they put the lid on. Then I remember as he is being taken out the entire lights fuse in the house.

When we get to the church Benjamin is brought in to the sound of Semisonic’s Secret Smile.

“Nobody knows it but you’ve got a secret smile

And you use it only for me

Nobody knows it but you’ve got a secret smile

And you use it only for me

So use it and prove it

Remove this whirling sadness

I’m losing I’m bluesing

But you can’t save me from madness.”

The school choir is there. They sing. They have Benjamin’s photographs and they are up on the church screen. That part of the service is played to a Linkin Park soundtrack. It is a song they often sang in the car when they drove to school.

“When you actually think of what you were singing . . .” she says. “In the shadow of the day . . . embrace the world in gray . . . sometimes there are no solutions . . . sometimes goodbye is the only way . . .’ I am thinking to myself we have sung that so many times.”

“Sometimes solutions aren’t so simple

“Sometimes goodbye’s the only way, oh

“And the sun will set for you

“The sun will set for you

“And the shadow of the day

“Will embrace the world in gray

“And the sun will set for you.”

“I speak to the congregation,” says Karen. “There’s an awful lot of people here and this is just my wee son. My niece stands with me. I’m okay. I’m probably going on too long. At this stage Benjamin would want me to shut up. I remember at the end Metallica plays Nothing Else Matters.”

“So close, no matter how far

“Couldn’t be much more from the heart

“Forever trusting who we are

“And nothing else matters.”

It is not often done by women in Ulster Presbyterian churches. But her mother’s imperative is to stay close. Don’t leave her son alone. Karen joins the cortege and carries Benjamin.

“I carry my son. Within that society women probably didn’t go to the cemetery and women didn’t do that. I am carrying my son. I don’t wear black. I carry him and I talk to him and I pat the side and I explain to him what’s happening.

“His rugby team are there in their colours of navy and burgundy and they form a guard of honour. We go through that. I’m linked in with my dad. We take turns and we go along the marine highway and it seems to be a sea of burgundy and navy.

“It is raining. I remember he has to be lowered down. I take the rope. Again that is met with [gasps]. Really. This is my son. I carried him. I brought him to this world. I need to talk him through what’s happening. We throw in flowers. Red roses, white roses.”

Afterwards the school holds a reception. Karen does not know who provides the food. She diligently stands talking to people until a relative suggests she should allow them to go home.

There are no lights in their house in Carrickfergus when they arrive back because of the blown fuse during Benjamin’s removal. That night they sit in candlelight and eat Chinese food.


Karen will later be diagnosed with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The family adopt a critical view of the PSNI and the Coroner’s Report. They discover that they have not buried all of Benjamin and it will be a year and a day before ‘the rest’ arrives in a small oak box.

“The undertakers go up and they bring Benjamin back in an oak box to my door,” says Karen. “I have him for 12 days. That is like a heaven. Again I put him in the car and I take him to places that we’ve been to. We went to a beach down in Brown’s Bay. We went to see a donkey down there.

“We ask for the guys in the cemetery to open . . . I wrap the oak box in a Man United pillowcase and I put photographs of all of us in. That is probably the hardest because you don’t have that protection of shock.”

Frustration bubbles over and they decide to acquire legal representation. Karen leaves her career in the police force.

A civil case is taken against the referee, the coach, the school, the Ulster Branch, the IRFU and World Rugby. A legal team will be assembled by World Rugby to contest the family’s claims. It will run for six years and finally come to a conclusion in December 2019.

The family sign a Non Disclosure Agreement. In the media it’s called a gagging clause and is designed to prevent sensitive, embarrassing, damaging or private information from getting into the public domain.

It is also known as a confidentiality agreement (CA), confidential disclosure agreement (CDA), proprietary information agreement (PIA) or secrecy agreement (SA) and is a legal contract between at least two parties that outlines confidential material, knowledge, or information.

Karen cannot share its contents without breaking the agreement.


After the funeral as she sat in the flickering candlelight, where Benjamin’s picture now looks across at her, she had little idea or little care about what other turns life might take.

She could not know how much Benjamin would become public property and his case critical to the public interest and understanding of how lethal concussion can be. They did not know how his image and name would be used to instigate change and awareness of head injuries in rugby everywhere. But her fears now as the years pass are the fading memories.

When the wave breaks.

“The only thing that makes Benjamin special is that he is my son,” she says. “He is my flesh and blood. He is my blue-eyed boy.

“You keep thinking the next day is going to be different.

“It is only the beginning.”

References :
  • Karen Robinson Walton (
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