She cuts a grief-stricken figure as she gazes into space as if awaiting a long gone child sent on an errand. Her eye sockets deepen, looking wearied. Disconsolate, she rubs her palms against each other. It is not hard to tell the woman has lost her only child. Shaken, troubled and left childless, Pastor Modupe Irele is not ready to give her life to grief. She is willing to keep finding meaning in a life that death seems to make meaningless. She will grieve but she will also find healing. Conspicuous on her wrist is a band with the inscription: ‘R.I.P. Ehi.’ In memory of her only child, Ehisieme Osarieme Alonge, Pastor Irele has decided to help other people grieving the loss of their loved ones like her. In this interview with Funke Olaode, Irele discusses her pains, her gains and void left by the passing on of her beloved son. To her, her son’s death remains a permanent scar that the passage of time may never heal. But with Ehibam Griefshare Foundation she has stretched out a helping hand to help other people grieve and live positively through their bereavement
Can you tell us about yourself?
My name is Pastor Modupe Irele. I retired from UNICEF as a training officer in 2013. I am a Lagosian because I was born and bred here and had my career here. I am a single parent. I had a child who passed on last year. But I had a good relationship with his father. We both nurtured the child till the age of 35 until he passed on.
Recently, you launched Ehibam Griefshare Foundation. What is it about?
It was launched on the December 1, 2016. It was in honour and memory of my only child and son who died on June 10, 2015 in England where he lived and worked. He moved to England at age of 10 and decided to stay back after his university education. He had a good job. When he passed on I didn’t think of setting up a foundation because I was devastated for months. I was very particular about how I was going to survive without a child who had grown up to be my confidant; who had grown up to be a man of integrity; and who had grown up to be very strong. He was looking forward to settle down and have his own children because he loved children. You can imagine my feelings. I didn’t think of doing anything until I got this revelation that I should reach out to people like me who are in bereavement and grief. I asked the Lord how to go about it because my emotions were still raw. I got people to pray along with me and I realised it is an assignment. I said to myself I can’t go knocking from door to door, that I must have a structure. I shared the vision with people and they were excited about it and that encouraged me. That was how the Ehibam Griefshare Foundation came about. His name is Ehisieme Alonge, native of Edo State. But while he was a baby he was a chubby toddler and my elder sister would always sing for him Ehibam bam. That is how I coined ‘Ehibam.’
What was the cause of his death?
He died of blood clot (an ailment that can affect any part of the body but deadly when it affects the lung). Ironically, he was a child who had never had cause to stay over on admission in a hospital; he had vibrant health. I had a child who was a keen sportsman. He was an avid rugby player. So, I never had worries about his health because he never called once that he wasn’t feeling fine. There was no anxiety about his state of health. But after the autopsy it was discovered that he died of pulmonary embolism. It is an ailment that once it hits you in the lungs it ceases the breath. In his case, there was no premonition of a sudden death. He collapsed on his way to work. He was taken to the hospital where everything was done to save his life all to no avail. It was saddening because I didn’t have a premonition that his end had come.
How did you receive the news?
That fateful day there was a revival in my church. And earlier on, I sent him a text message because he doesn’t like picking his calls during office hour. Usually, instead of calling him I would send him a WhatsApp message. I was enjoying myself in the presence of God and hoped to talk to him later that day. But after the service the head of the church requested to see me. Surprisingly, when I entered her office I saw members of my family, the father of my son and immediately I knew the worst had happened. Then, I screamed ‘What happened to Ehi?’
What was going through your mind at that moment?
It was shock and I shut down immediately. I was devastated. I had my clothes on and I was asking people around me, ‘Why am I naked?’ I had a burning sensation and it seemed as if I was in the midst of a burning fire. At that moment I had my eyes opened but I thought I had gone blind. After a week, I travelled to the UK. All I wanted for him was to be given a befitting burial. He was a star child who didn’t give me any problem. He was a selfless being. On arrival in the UK, I was humbled by the outpouring of emotions from his friends. I didn’t know how large his world was. I had to see the body at the funeral parlour and after that I attended the wake keep. I was also afraid that I was going to lose my faith because I asked God so many questions like: ‘Why me?’ Even if one had 20 children you wouldn’t want to lose one – but an only child? When in the service of the Lord and think you have given your best that best might just be a filthy rag in His sight. His memory has refused to fade away. While I was in London, I would take flowers to the cemetery every week. I would say, ‘Ehi, you have changed your address and that is why I have come to visit you (here).’ I would sit down for a while. Sincerely, his memory has refused to fade away and for several months I kept asking God the same question, ‘why me?’ So, I mourned him and I am still mourning him. It is a lifetime of mourning. It is a grief that stays. I was asking God: ‘why should I go into retirement and you have taken all from me?’ I was still querying God until I got an answer one day that, ‘why not you? I gave all for the salvation of the universe.’ That He had a child and he died at age 33; that was our Lord Jesus Christ. And from that moment I was asking him: ‘father, please take me through this.’ That was because I was afraid of going into depression or going down with ailments that will make me a burden to members of my family. The first nine months I couldn’t pray and was just asking people to pray for me not to lose my faith and God should turn my pain to gain. God gave me this assignment of launching a grief-share foundation. This is something we are not familiar with in our community and the country as a whole.
Is there any lesson learnt from the picture you just painted?
I think it is quite early. But the lesson I have learnt from what has happened to me in the last 15 months is just to do the best you can in life. Why? You don’t have control over what happened to you. Also, you have a purpose in life and it is good to discover that purpose early. I believe I have fulfilled the purpose of motherhood. God has allowed me to have a child who lived up to the age of 35. I believe he had finished his task on earth and has gone to be with His maker. I have Jesus Christ as my God and saviour. The lesson of life has taught me to focus on Him. You can imagine looking back and realising that your only child is gone. But I would console myself that I have been a mother and I would always be a mother because a child who went through my womb may not be with me physically but his spirit will always be with me. So, I will always be ‘Mama Ehi’ till I die. Now I have so many children. My sisters’ children are all running with this foundation and it is amazing because they have taken it as a vision in memory of one of them.
Can you throw more light on what Ehibam Foundation has to offer?
Blood clot, as I have been educated, is something its victims don’t survive. Again, it is not something that you know that you have. It just comes suddenly and strikes. If it settles in the eye or leg you are lucky. But when it goes into the lung it is final. Sometimes people mistake it for heart attack and it is not something you discover by doing annual medical check-up. The foundation is not to create awareness about the ailment for now but to reach out to people who are in grief; people who are mourning; people who have lost their loved one. The aim is to create a platform where people can go and share experience with people who have gone through the journey. We want to give hope to the people for a new, normal life. To let them know that losing loved ones is not the end of life. I have met someone who said she struggled for 21 years. Do you want to continue? So, it is a support group that we want to create. In my case, I had a lot of support from family, friends and faith. Luckily, I found a support group on my own in the United States where I found answer to the question I have been asking God when I thought my life was over. The support group allayed my fear that I am not alone nor forsaken, that God is still there and if I put my trust in Him He will see me through.
How can those in grief get in touch with the foundation?
We have an office in Anthony (Lagos). Kindhearted Nigerians have volunteered to partner with us. Somebody has offered a place for us in Victoria Island under an NGO that deals with family matters. We have been offered centres in Yaba. It is going to be a place of succour, refuge, and laughter. We will pray together, laugh together, cry together and even have a drink together. It is a foundation of heart that is thrown open for people to get involved. So, by the time you are going home you are light-hearted and see light at the end of a dark tunnel. I pray that the foundation will outlive me and in a few years’ time I can tell people that I have overcome through Jesus Christ that strengthens me. I am praying to God to allow me enjoy good health and be surrounded with people who share in this vision to execute it. It is not about me but about humanity.
Have you ever had an encounter with your son, either through dreams or trance, in the last 15 months?
Yes. I feel him every moment. But the memorable one was the Mothers’ Day in March this year. I had cried so much and decided I wasn’t going to church. I missed his every morning calls and his loving words during seasons of celebration. That day was going to be the first year after he had passed on. I was in my room when I heard my name “Mama’ – the name he used to call me. He asked me to stretch my hands and bouquet of flower was handed over to me. I felt I had received a gift from my son. And on getting to church the first person I met gave me a gift. Another one was in June when I had planned to launch the foundation. I was in my room with all the materials when I just saw him dancing round me expressing his pleasure for the foundation. Right there, I knew I was on the right path.
How do you think one can overcome grief?
I will advise that those grieving should look for good listeners where they can express their emotions. It might not be somebody who has experienced it but somebody who they can share their loss with. My immediate younger sister who is based abroad, Mrs. Lola Davies, gave me listening ears. She was like a surrogate mother to my son throughout his stay in England. She had my heart beat; I could just wake up and talk about my son for hours and she would listen. I may decide to cry the following day she would give me her shoulders to cry one. When I discovered the support group in the US she followed me and supported me that even she could handle me when we get back to London. So, a good listener is good and a support where you can pour out your emotions is helpful as well. In the time of grief, don’t allow anybody to shut you up. Open your heart and trust in God. He will heal your wounds if you allow Him to come into your life.