Losing loved ones to untimely death often leaves an open wound which time may not immediately heal. But a non-governmental organisation, Ehibam Griefshare Foundation, a voluntary driven forum founded by Ms. Modupe Irele is bridging that gap, offering support to those in bereavement to live a normal life. Funke Olaode reports

It may be hard for you to feel optimistic about the future when you have lost a spouse, child, family member, or friend and you have probably found there are not many people who understand the deep hurt you feel. This can be a confusing time when you feel isolated and have many questions about things you have never faced before. At this time, it takes faith and personal conviction not to go into deep depression or become suicidal if not carefully handled.

But for someone who has been there he or she knows where the shoe pinches. Ms. Modupe Irele would always remember June 10 of every year with sadness. It was the day her entire world crashed when her only child and promising 35-year-old son, Ehisieme Osarieme Alonge died in faraway United Kingdom to pulmonary embolism (blood clot). For Irele, she thought the end had come. It has been over 30 months of sorrow and anguish, but on December 1, 2016 the day Ehi as he was fondly called would have been 36, Irele dropped the garment of mourning by launching a foundation in memory of her late son.

The solemn gathering which held at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Victoria Island, Lagos, paraded the crème de la crème. Among the guests of honour were the wife of the Vice-President, Mrs. Dolapo Osinbajo including Mrs. Leila Fowler, Iyalode Shade Ogunbiyi, Mrs. Jumoke Asiodu, Pastor Yeside Staveley, amongst others.

Ehibam Griefshare Foundation (EGF), according to Irele, is a voluntary driven foundation with the aim to guide those who are grieved to live a new normal life. The foundation’s seminar and support group are led by people who understand what the bereaved are going through and want to help them recover and rebuild their broken lives.

On December 1, 2017, eminent personalities led by Prof. Adebayo Akinde converged on Lagos Country Club, Ikeja Lagos for the first year anniversary discourse of the foundation with the theme: ‘Open Arms, Light Hearts, Leaning on Others in Times of Grief’.

In her opening remarks, founder and chairman of EGF, Irele said the discourse became imperative because of people’s response to the new support system. “The response is not encouraging. It has been one year since the foundation was established with four centres in Bode-Thomas Street, Yaba, Basie Ogambia Street, Surulere, Obanikoro and Jide Oki Street, Victoria Island. These centres have volunteers who are ready to assist those who are willing to share their loss experiences. I have experienced personal loss and it helps because I also found a support group which I attended in United States in those turbulent moments in my life.”

Speaking further Irele said the cultural factor of mourning in silence is affecting this vision. “I am not discouraged. I have had people call me on one-on-one. They are just getting to know about the foundation and again, the element of culture is there. I mean this belief that ‘you don’t discuss death with people’. It is a problem with us in Nigeria as people don’t see it as a platform to chart a new course. When you are in bereavement, you are surrounded by a family member for a short period of time, but when it comes to mourning, it is a personal thing that can take a whole lifetime. And that is where the Ehibam Griefshare Foundation wants to come in. We want to create a forum where you can meet those who have overcome loss and you can share with others. In my early days of grief, there are certain feelings that I might not want to share with a family member because I don’t want to affect that person with my emotion. But if I am among those who have been there before I would open up.”

In her short remarks, Vice-Chairman of the Foundation, Iyalode Folashade Ogunbiyi said the foundation was a friendly caring group of well-trained people and volunteers which provides and offers support to those in bereavement, walking them through the healing process, offering a helping hand through the challenging journey towards a new normal life. The discourse, she said, was about creating awareness of the existence of a place of safe haven located in Victoria Island, Surulere, Yaba and Obanikoro. The response according to her, has not been encouraging as it is envisaged because of perceived cultural norms that forbid people from sharing their grief with outsiders.

“Today as we mark the second anniversary of the foundation which falls on Ehi’s birthday, our message is to share and spread the mission and vision so that people can know that there is help out there.”

In his paper titled ‘Culture and Death: A Multi-Cultural Perspective’, Dr. Taofiq Salisu of Tai Solarin University of Education, Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, was of the view that culture is part of religion which reflects in every facet of human life. Giving accolades to Nigerian nay African culture that throws its weight behind bereaved person, Salisu is still of the opinion that culture shouldn’t prevent people to express their sadness over the departed. “In your time of grief, who are those who would get you out?” He asked rhetorically. “It is inevitable to die but when, where and how we don’t know.”

While many people believe that it is only death that can bring grief, Salisu stressed that loss of pregnancy, job, and calamity and so on can bring a short-lived grief but loss of loved one unexpectedly can bring an everlasting grief.

Delving on the cultural aspect of grief: should the bereaved be allowed to mourn? asked Salisu. He answered in affirmative. “Usually, when there is a sudden loss, there is a notion of disbelief and anger with the cliché ‘Why Me?’ And sometimes they (the bereaved) would be blaming others for their woes. This can lead to depression. We should allow people to cry and mourn their loved ones as long as they can as it reduces tension.

Salisu ended his paper by reminding invited guests that nobody prays for eventuality but it is written that everybody will die one day but keeping the memory of the departed alive is better than mourning the departed forever.

In his paper themed ‘Understanding and Managing Grief, a Cross Cultural Perspective’ by Prof. Yemisi Obashoro of Department of Adult Education, University of Lagos, he said it was a topic that affects every human being as we have our world with us in terms of family part, health, actualisation, expectations and so on but as we live through it, there is an event that will lead to reality. Understanding grief, according to him, “is something we must understand and hold on to. What can cause grief? Of course, the symptoms are always there and when the feelings come we must respond to it.” Grief, he said, is a response to loss which leads to sadness that may never end. How do you handle grief? According to Obashoro, grief is a personal thing but the cause and circumstances may differ; a person who lost one child out of four and another who lost only child would adopt different approaches to grief. The first would only remember while it stays with the second woman forever.

Throwing more light on the multi-cultural perspective he said just as cultures differ from one community to another, mourners must be sensitive to cultural differences while mourning.

“If you want to support the person in grief, you must ask about the family, position and community about grieving so you don’t run contrary to what may be considered a taboo. Although culture keeps evolving and there is this cliché that ‘wounds heal with time’. But of significant note is to recognise the chief mourner in every situation and help the person through it.”

On religion and spirituality in adjusting to bereavement, Ven. Feyi Ojelabi of St. Jude’s Church Ebute-Metta, Lagos, said the question of bereavement or death was a subject that we usually don’t want to think or openly talk about. Explaining the concept of religion and spirituality which is the belief and worship of God and the other being the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material of physical things. Ojelabi noted that often it appears that people lose consciousness that death is our companion in our journey of life. This he said gives rise to the sense of bereavement or loss of physical separation that we experience citing Ecclesiastes 12:7.

Although there is a saying in Yoruba parlance that we would not suffer loss in any form but the Bible has made it clear that there is time to be born and also time to die because death is inevitable. He emphasised that life is immeasurable, limited, phased, transients and expires. But as Christians it is therefore comforting that in moments of bereavement we should see it not as a loss but a transition. He concluded by admonishing guests that bereavement should strengthen their faith and reassure their hope in the imperative of yielding their lives and accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

Rounding up the discourse with her paper, ‘The Challenges of Bereavement of Support Group in Nigeria Society’, Grief Consultant and CEO, Serendipity House, Nigeria, Olori Yemisi Jaiyeola commended EhibamGrief Share Foundation for bridging the gap. She made a passionate appeal to government at all levels to create support system centres that would help in times of bereavement as it’s done abroad. “I have experienced it because second year into my husband’s death, I couldn’t get any help. I have visited Ministry of Women Affairs that women’s lives, is not all about poverty alleviation or occasional empowerment but emotional care is also important, that Grieving Centres should be in every local government and community but there is no response.”

For Jaiyeola, apart from Nigeria’s culture of “die in pain” as she can’t understand why someone who lost her husband at 28 is still widowed at 62 having refused to remarry because of what the society may say or think, she pointed out that awareness is low because some grieving centres don’t have knowledge on how to deal with the situation why those in bereavement sometimes believe that they don’t need help and should be left alone.

Jaiyeola concluded by calling out to government, leadership, and churches to lend their support while all existing Grief Centres should reach out to those who lost their loved ones by following up and make some noise about their activities.

Drawing the curtain on the anniversary discourse, Akinde called on all and sundry to stand up against a culture that sees women as properties. Not only that, he enjoined the larger society to rise in defence of widows and not allow cultural values to override the basic principles.