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Liz Jensen
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Every parent fears losing a child, but when my first son was born I was gripped with an unshakable terror that one day a child of mine would die. Dismissing it wasn’t an option: its hold was too firm. It made me feel lonely and furtive and ashamed, the way awful secrets do. I couldn’t tell anybody, because if I said it aloud it might come true. But finally, when I became pregnant for the second time, I cracked. 

I’m going to lose a child, I told the therapist. I don’t know which one. But one of them will die. 

He took my distress seriously. My fear was symptomatic of magical thinking, he said – the form of superstition that convinces you of non-existent realities or connections. But that didn’t make ignoring it an option. Instead, I had to examine where it came from and take active steps to dissolve its power. So after investigating it over several weeks, I went on a small pilgrimage to make peace with something in my past. Placebo or not, the intervention worked: the curse, whether real or imaginary, was lifted. My second son was born, and as he and his brother grew up, the old terror – irrational fears of a young mother, 1989–1994 – lay half-forgotten in the mental equivalent of the kitchen drawer, along with pencils, used batteries and padlock keys. 

And then the phone call came. 

My younger son Raphaël had collapsed and died. It was inexplicable. He was twenty-five. In that moment, everything else collapsed and died too. My life. My world. My sense of meaning. And time itself. 

When the ancient Greeks walked the earth there were two words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos referred to the epochs, centuries, years, seasons, weeks, months and days, and their myriad subdivisions: it is what marks calendars, clocks and schedules, charting the forward movement of history and human lifetimes. But kairos embodies another kind of time altogether: the kind that disrupts chronology, foreclosing the future we reckoned on and forcing radical change. Kairos moments seem to come out of the blue. But nothing really does. Every life-changing moment has an invisible gestation. When the most likely cause of Raphaël’s death emerged, it came with a name: arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia. The potential for a fatal electrical malfunction of his heart had been latent all along, quietly preparing for the catastrophe I had once intuited and then suppressed. 

His death was my kairos moment. It catapulted me into a new dimension in which time, space, and language ceased to function. Several times a day I’d say, aloud, ‘Raph’s dead’, as if to understand the depth and permanence of it. I couldn’t. But I kept saying it, like a terrible new mantra. What more was there to say? 

But then, in traumatised, sporadic bursts, more words came from wherever it is words come from: journal entries, letters, fragments, notes, and semi-imagined conversations with the loving, talkative, argumentative, comical, visionary, stubborn, energetic, generous, eccentric young man who was – and still is – my child. They tumbled out chaotically, and they were as raw as I felt: as tortured, as hopeless and as confused. 

If grief is the price of love, then when what we love vanishes, we pay for it with a misery that approaches madness. But no feeling, however deep, is permanent. When kairos struck, breaking the invisible line I once thought of as natural progression and throwing me into a state of mental chaos like nothing I had ever known, I was forced to trust the constancy of change itself, and to surrender to all that rolled through me. 

It’s said that for grief to begin its work we must live through it in every season. And slowly, as spring turned to summer, then autumn and winter, I began to feel flickers of wonder, surprise, gratitude, and even something close to joy. But kairos’ most transcendent gift is still unfolding: a new way of inhabiting the world. 

An acquaintance who lost a son said to me, soon after Raphaël’s death: ‘You get through it, but you never get over it.’ I’ve come to believe that this wisdom applies not just to the grief of bereaved parents, but to the grief – past, present and anticipatory – of a civilisation in the midst of a rolling existential crisis, the full scope of which we can only guess at. Each passing year distorts the future we once expected. We’re no longer who we were and we’re not headed where we thought. To navigate the currents of this era of unprecedented turbulence, we will need to be imaginative, inventive, and practical. And I believe we can be. 

Today, every child is born into a rapidly vanishing Eden. As a wildlife biologist and environmental activist, Raphaël felt this viscerally. He could have sunk into apathy or depression in the face of the ecological desecration he saw every day. ‘Every time I write about an endangered species, it feels like I’m writing its obituary,’ he told me once. It grieved him, but it didn’t deter him. His talent was to look for the tiny aperture at the heart of every crisis that lets the light in. When he found it, he did all he could to widen it, let in more light, and help it spread. ‘To some, collapse seems inevitable,’ he wrote. ‘To others, ambitious systemic change is not only necessary, but also offers an opportunity for hope.’ 

I tried to apply this to my own apocalypse. As I searched for new stories, rituals, knowledge and physical practices to alleviate my devastation and to simply stay alive, Raphaël and I began fresh conversations about the world. Weird, sometimes. Funny, often. Consoling, always. And as I rode the ever-changing waves of grief, I learned to heed the instincts that the process of civilisation has suppressed in our species: the instincts of the animal we are. In honouring my own creaturehood, and attending to my intimations of the numinous, I discovered strength within deepest pain. 

I am not the same person I was before. After trauma, no one is. We hear about post-traumatic stress. But we hear less about post-traumatic growth, post-traumatic regeneration, and post-traumatic spiritual awakening. Yet I have felt all these things, in my mind and my blood, and I inhabit my skin differently. I am less an ‘I’ and more a ‘we’. This doesn’t make me feel small. Instead, it frames me as a cell that pulses within the living body of another vast organism that is vital to my own survival and the survival of all that it contains. 

My son’s death will never make sense to me. But it has taught me that it’s possible to find other kinds of meaning, collectively and individually, in the loss of what we love. And in finding them, transform. Resilience is a seed that we all bear inside us. It germinates in emergencies. It sprouts whether we ask it to or not. It sets down roots in astonishing and unexpected ways. And if we notice it, and tend to it, it blooms. I have seen it among others who are bereaved. We are sadder than we were. But we cherish life more, because of all we owe it. 

We have learned that if we love the world again, it will love us back. 


Liz Jensen is a novelist, co-founder of Writers Rebel and founder of the Rebel Library. Her son Raphaël Coleman, also known as Iggy Fox, was a prominent member of XR Youth and a member of the Snowflakes affinity group. He collapsed and died suddenly on 6th February 2020 of an undiagnosed heart anomaly at the age of 25. Liz Jensen’s memoir Your Wild and Precious Life: On Grief, Hope and Rebellion is published by Canongate. This is an extract. 


Call to action: My son always used to say to me, when I despaired of doing anything meaningful given the scale of the emergency, “Do what you can with what you have, where you are.”

So think of what you love doing most, and find a way to make it part of your activism. And if you protect wildlife anywhere in the word, join the Wildwork, the organisation he founded as a student