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Irene Low (right) with her oldest child, Jonathan Chang. Mother and son shared a special bond because they were alike and had much in common. All photos courtesy of Irene Low.

Irene Low and her firstborn, Jonathan Chang, were close.

Mother and son were alike: Fun-loving, full of life, fearlessly adventurous.

Even when he had a family of his own and was in his 50s, Jonathan often hugged and kissed his mum.

“Jonathan was a hugger,” said Irene, 81.

lost at sea

Irene and Jonathan sharing a hug. Every time he saw his mother, Jonathan would hug her and give her a kiss.

Jonathan was also an avid deep-sea fisherman who enjoyed taking his speedboat out to sea. In December 2017, he had just bought a new speedboat and was eager to try it out.

Said Irene: “I told him, ‘Please don’t fish during December and January because it is monsoon season.’ He promised me he wouldn’t.”

lost at sea

Jonathan enjoyed deep-sea fishing.

But that day, he and his friend were so excited about the new speedboat and just had to take it out for a spin. They were at the coastal town of Mersing in Malaysia.

At first, all was well. Then the pair passed a boat returning to shore. Its sailors told them to turn back. A storm was approaching.

But Jonathan and his friend wanted to test the speedboat just a little bit further.

That afternoon, a thunderstorm swept across the southern region. Irene remembers being home in Singapore that day.

She recalled: “There was a thunderstorm in Singapore as well. I was at home praying for people who were flying in airplanes. I told God, ‘Please have mercy, clear a space for them.’”

Hell on earth

What Irene did not know was that her son’s speedboat would capsize in that storm.

Early the next day, Irene’s second son, Benjamin, called her to break the news: Jonathan was missing at sea.

“I fainted in my house,” she told Salt&Light.

With her youngest daughter, Michelle, she drove to Mersing to be near the search party.

Irene (front row, second from right) celebrating her birthday with her family. Benjamin (standing, left), Irene’s second son, and Jonathan (standing, right) were very different from one another. Irene said they were “like chalk and cheese”. Her daughter Michelle-Pam is seated with Irene (in white).

She said: “Deep down when I was standing at the Mersing jetty, I knew I had lost my son. I told God, ‘Please, I want my son’s body to be found.’”

“That was the year I did nothing but go to the crematorium. Oh, it was terrible.”

A day later, a fisherman found Jonathan’s body washed ashore on Bintan Island in Indonesia, some 42 nautical miles from where his boat had capsized. He was 51 and his children, a son and a daughter, were just 12 and seven then.

The body of Jonathan’s friend was found the next day.

Irene told Salt&Light: “I often wondered: Had I been focusing (my prayers) on him instead of the people in the airplanes, would it have made a difference? That was what haunted me in my moments of grief.”

That year, Irene’s husband had passed away in April from a heart attack. She had also lost her brother in May. 

She recalled: “That was the year I did nothing but go to the crematorium. Oh, it was terrible. December was the hardest.

“Standing behind Jonathan’s coffin as they brought it to the crematorium was torturous. It’s not what any parent would want to go through. That was really hell for me.”

lost at sea

Irene lost Jonathan in December 2017. Earlier that year, she had also lost her husband.

A Christian who had been serving actively in various churches, Irene had bitter words for God during that season.

“I scolded God. I was very angry. I told Him, ‘Lord, I have been doing Your business. The least You could do was to take care of my family.

“‘Why did You take Your eyes off my son? I never took my eyes off Your family!’”

For nearly three months, the extrovert who once loved company locked herself at home. She refused to see anyone, especially her cell group members and church leaders.

“I said, ‘Please don’t come and quote me Bible verses. I don’t want to hear any spiritual words. Just let me heal by myself.’

“But I couldn’t hear God. I was just so angry.”

A song of hope

As she was cocooned in her grief, something caught her eye one day: her ukulele.

Five months before Jonathan passed away, Irene had been invited to join a group of women from St Peter’s Church to learn the ukulele.

Vibrant and vocal, Irene (second from right) loved life. But when Jonathan passed away, she could not stand to be with people.

Now her ukulele, forgotten and abandoned, lay in the dust. Irene decided to clean and re-string it. That led her to strum a few chords and play a few songs.

“The song that really hit me was How Great Thou Art. It was a turnaround for me because my focus became not on myself and my pain.

“I realised God’s ways are not my ways and His ways are better than my ways. That was how my healing came,” she said.

It was worshipping God on her ukulele that turned Irene from her grief to her God.

“I had to lose a very precious son to learn that lesson. I don’t want other parents to learn the hard way like I did.

“In hindsight, I believe the Lord never took His eyes off me.”

Back to school at 75 

By May 2018, five months after her son’s passing, Irene had begun to claw back a semblance of her old self. But God had more than healing in mind for her.

“The Lord knows me so well.”

A friend encouraged her to go to Bible college. Irene was 75 then.

Always one who thrived on being occupied, she was open to the idea. But the thought of committing three years of her life to studying did not appeal to her.

Her friend told her to try the School of Ministry at Tung Ling Bible School instead. It was only a three-month programme.

Those who knew her jokingly made a bet that Irene would not last even a few weeks in school.

However, within a week of enrolment, the Dean of the school asked her to give lifts to three students who would otherwise have had to travel a long time to get to the campus.

Said Irene: “The Lord knows me so well. With these three passengers, even if I were sick, I would still drive to Tung Ling. In the end, I completed the three months.”

Irene at her graduation from the School of Ministry receiving her certificate from the late Richard Magnus.

Those three months were, however, just “an icebreaker”, said Irene. She later signed up for the School of Leadership, also under Tung Ling Bible School, with her friend, Jenny.

At the time, Jenny had just lost both her daughter and her husband to illnesses within hours of each other.

Irene (centre in white) with the alumni of the School of Ministry. The cohort in 2019 when she enrolled was so large that they were divided into different groups, each named after a tribe in the Bible. Irene found herself in an all-women group called Manasseh. Till today, they continue to keep in touch.

“I had been journeying with her while her daughter and husband were sick. So she came to me and said, ‘Dajie (Big sister), accompany me to Tung Ling for the School of Leadership.’

“Without hesitating, I said, ‘Yes.’ I wanted to continue walking with her.”

Transformed by God

What began as an act of kindness turned out to be an avenue through which God would transform Irene’s relationship with Him.

During the course, she experienced the Lord at work to “totally transform” her character.

“I was steeped in the presence of God. There was wonderful teaching and fellowship coming from deep within,” she said.

“The people were so supportive. Everybody had the same mindset. We just flowed and bonded. Every morning, I couldn’t wait to get to school. It was an amazing journey.”

Her time in Tung Ling Bible School so transformed her that Irene regularly returns to help out. She is seen here with some Tung Lung Bible School participants who surprised her with an original song entitled Nana Nana, Thank You. Nana is a term of endearment for grandmothers. The students call her that as a form of respect for her age.

One of the most precious lessons Irene learnt was from Dean Philip Ong’s class.

“He taught about character transformation, how our character links to the character of God.

“I realised there were these flaws in me that I had not shed. I had been paying attention only to myself. I was selfish. I served in my own time, on my own terms. (My mindset was) ‘I don’t need to kowtow (bow down) to you. If you don’t like it, that’s too bad.’

“God used the lesson to break me.”

Irene with the Deans of Tung Ling Bible School, Philip Ong (left) and Ong Guek Ju (right). Irene shares a strong bond with them.

Redeeming the lost years

While Irene had always considered herself a consistent Christian, she realised that, in truth, her relationship with God had been superficial, she admitted.

“In my prayers, I used to give God a shopping list, ‘Can you take care of my house, my this, my that?’ I didn’t give Him time to talk to me,” she said.

But studying God’s word gave Irene a deeper understanding of what it meant to have “a close relationship with Jesus”.

Irene (second row, third from right) with the staff and students from Tung Ling Bible School.

“Now it’s different. I really love Jesus so much now. God is so important to me. I depend on Him a lot. I tell Him, ‘This heart is Yours.’ My life is all about Jesus. Jesus is not a religion. He is a relationship.”

These days, she goes to bed at 8pm and wakes up at 4am to spend time with God. “I strum my ukulele and worship the Lord. I never used to be like that, said Irene, who used to go to bed at midnight.

“Even my style of praying is not like before. Now I just quieten myself and tell God, ‘Whatever You want to download, You download onto me.’”

The change within has brought about visible change without.

Once an impatient woman, Irene now surprises even herself by the gentleness with which she treats others.

Irene with her elderly friend Helen Ong, with whom she journeyed through a long-drawn illness.

“When I teach the ladies in their 80s ukulele, I’m like, ‘Darling, take your time.’ I love the company of the elderly. They are so loving, so pioneering,” said Irene, an image consultant with American modelling agency John Robert Powers.

“Sometimes I wonder: When he was struggling out at sea, did he call for Jesus? Did he call out to God?”

Because of this new love for God and people, Irene also unabashedly talks to others about her faith. When participants at her workshops express surprise that she is an octogenarian, she attributes her vitality to God.

“I tell them, ‘I have the joy of the Lord. I don’t use any moisturiser, only baby lotion. The rest is about having the love of the Lord.’”

Her renewed walk with God has changed her relationship with her family as well.

A career woman who once had her own consultancy business, she used to have several maids to help her take care of her three children.

“I bought them what they wanted and thought I had done my job as a mother. But all they wanted was to spend time with mum and I wasn’t there,” she said.

Since Jonathan’s (standing, left) passing, Irene (standing, second from right) has made it a point to prioritise family.

When her children were grown, Irene could go for months without contacting them.

Now she messages them every few days. Every Monday, she also sends them “weekly blessings” – reflections gleaned from her daily time with God. She notes them in her journal and shares them according to “how the Lord impresses upon me”.

The change in her is so distinct that her son and daughter have been inspired. “My son is going to church, looking at the Bible in-depth. My daughter is taking a course on the prophetic ministry,” she said.

Of regrets and hopes

Though she is thankful that she gained a newfound relationship with God after the tragedy of her son’s death, Irene has some regrets.

“I should have told Jonathan, ‘Cover yourself with the blood of Jesus. Call out to Jesus.’

“I did not impart or instil in him the importance of calling out to Jesus. Sometimes I wonder: When he was struggling out at sea, did he call for Jesus? Did he call out to God?

“I also want to tell him, ‘I love you very much. I really love you.’”

lost at sea

Irene’s big regret is that when she was parenting Jonathan, she had not imparted to him the deep love of God she now has.

Despite these regrets, she is determined to live fully for Jesus in her golden years.

On Monday before her interview with Salt&Light, a 94-year-old friend called Irene to share a word God had for her: “I am filling Irene’s cup to overflowing.”

Irene is moved by the encouragement.

“I said, ‘Thank You, Jesus. I believe it’s never too late for the Lord to redeem me and really fill me with the Holy Spirit to make my life count for Him.”


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About the author

Christine Leow

Christine believes there is always a story waiting to be told, which led to a career in MediaCorp News. Her idea of a perfect day involves a big mug of tea, a bigger muffin and a good book.