I have been fortunate to have very little personal experience with death.
I lost my grandparents at a young age, well before I could get to know them. I bawled over beloved guinea pigs and parakeets when they inexplicably dropped dead in their cages.
But I recently lost a very dear friend of mine to cancer. Mike Lowry, 54, of Kent, lost his fight with throat cancer on Father’s Day, surrounded by his family and friends. I was one of those friends.
Before Mike’s death, I was blissfully unaware of the enormous impact of losing a loved one. It has affected me, mind, body and soul.
Merely kids, Mike and I dated for three years in our early 20s. I give him credit for being the first “nice guy” I ever dated. He was sweet, kind, handsome and always up for adventure. I’ll never forget our hot balloon ride over Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery in 1994. It was his idea!
Despite a difficult breakup, fraught with the usual feelings of hurt, anger and rejection, we maintained a close friendship for more than 25 years. Life took us in different directions, of course, but we always stayed in touch.
He and I commiserated over lost loves, lousy jobs, financial hardships, which car to buy, where to live. Though there was lots of change, our friendship always endured.
Then came the phone call, 11 years ago. I was on my way to work when Mike reached out to tell me he had been diagnosed with throat cancer. I was sickened by the news. But Mike stayed tough through rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. His desire to live kept him fighting.
After treatment, his cancer went into remission. Mike stayed thinner and paler than I would have liked to see, but at least his cancer was gone. He was back to good again for another decade. Better than good: He married his wife, Kat, in 2014.
But then, in 2018, the cancer returned. He had surgery plus more chemo and radiation, but it was all for naught. The cancer spread from his throat to the rest of his body. His time on Earth was decidedly drawing to a close.
I traveled to the hospital to be with him Father’s Day weekend. Minutes before I arrived, Mike was rushed to the emergency room at Valley Medical Center with internal bleeding that could not be stopped. The decision was made to make him as comfortable as possible as his body shut down.
I don’t know what made me think I was prepared to watch my friend die — because I most certainly wasn’t. A torrent of pain and sorrow went through me as I sat with him for his last two days. I was simultaneously relieved that he would finally be free of his cancer-ridden body, and crushed that he was dying.
After his death, I returned home in an uncontrollably weepy state. I felt (and still feel) discombobulated, anxious, heavy-hearted and extremely vulnerable.
And yet, despite the pain, the experience had been unexpectedly powerful and profound. I felt a tremendous bond with the seven other loved ones (several of whom I did not know beforehand) who gathered around Mike’s bedside as his time drew near. We cried, we laughed at Mike stories, we hugged, but mostly we sat there quietly.
At first I thought that bond came from grieving together, but it wasn’t that: We were connected by the power of love. Our love for Mike.
Mike’s death left me with a few more realizations.
The only thing that matters is love. As I sat there with Mike, holding his hand in the hospital room, I only thought of the love I had for him. My career, my appearance, money, all the things I need to do and accomplish — these things were no longer important. It was an eye-opener for me. My priorities are different now.
Tell your loved ones you love them, over and over. Say it, write it, text it. I don’t care if it’s not in your nature to be sentimental. Make it your nature. Reading through old texts and emails between me and Mike, we exchanged “I love you’s” countless times, and we always ended phone calls the same way. Realizing this brings me much comfort. Without a doubt, Mike died knowing that his friend Catherine loved him to the moon and back.
Make time to see your loved ones. The future is uncertain. I was grateful to be with Mike during his final days and he was aware that I was there, but how fervently I wished I had seen him sooner for one last conversation, one final bear hug. I know beating myself up over it serves no purpose (Mike would tell me to knock it off this instant), but the experience has awakened me to the importance of prioritizing love over everything else.
Grieving is brutal, but it’s rife with learning. The pain of Mike’s death is a price I’m willing to pay for our 25-year friendship. My friend’s passing has shown me the power and importance of love, and how much better it is to have loved and lost than not loved at all.
To my kindred spirit, John Michael Lowry (July 2, 1964-June 16, 2019): I cherish our friendship like no other and feel honored that I could be by your side as you left your body behind and moved on to new adventures. Your loving, nurturing and adventurous spirit made you a one-of-a-kind man, and I am so blessed to have had you in my life. I miss you deeply and can’t wait to see you again. I love you forever.
Catherine Bongiorno is a personal trainer, nutritional therapist and owner of Lift To Lose Fitness & Nutrition. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.lifttolose.com for more information.