I lost one of my closest friends and colleagues, Cheryl Lower, at the end of February. In tribute to her, I’m dedicating this month’s piece to a few of the lessons learned from our 25 years of friendship.

Never stop learning. Cheryl and I met in a book club that was part of the Boston Organization Development Network at the time and continued a mutual love of books and learning about leadership, management, strategy, psychology, coaching, and consulting throughout our friendship. I loved talking about our latest reads and comparing insights as we thought about how to apply them to our work.

The first step in making a career change is to understand the field you’re moving into. When we met, we both wanted to shift into the field of Organization Development, but neither of us knew yet what that could look like. We decided to meet up regularly to compare notes and support one another. We learned about the different roles that people had and explored what parts interested each of us. We shared our informational interview questions and systems for capturing notes and follow-up. Nearly 20 years later, this experience formed the basis for the coaching I do now with clients who are making a career transition.

Be silly. It makes for lasting memories. Cheryl had a charming and goofy sense of humor. It was one of the things I loved most about her. A small example – one year, for my birthday, Cheryl sang Happy Birthday – the “you live in a zoo” version – to me, knowing she was on speakerphone in my car in front of my family. I chuckle every time I think of it.

It’s even okay to be silly at work. While I tend to be somewhat reserved, I saw the benefits Cheryl gained by letting her goofy self shine through in her work. For example, we had a client Board workshop on the same day as the Kentucky Derby. Cheryl added photos of the Derby to our slide deck and teased everyone about having mint juleps for lunch. The laughter instantly put the group at ease and created a lightness that carried the day.

Reach out to people and ask them for help. It makes them feel important, and you might get some ideas from the conversation. Cheryl was great about calling me out of the blue to help her think through projects, and I loved it! I felt so valued. It was those calls over the years that kept our friendship going, and I’m so glad for them. It can be easy to hold ourselves back from asking for help, for fear of being a burden or bothering someone. Cheryl showed me that, in fact, the effect is often just the opposite. It’s nice to be needed.

Show an interest in your friends’ friends. Cheryl was always curious to hear about my other friendships, as an extension of getting to know me. At one point she jokingly said we should create an “Alidapalooza” gathering of my closest friends. This became a running joke between us, especially when she noticed my tendency toward privacy and seclusion.

Sadly, we never did it, but it was that joke that caused me to create a group text of my close friends one day when I really needed encouragement. And they came through for me, saying exactly what I needed to hear. One of Cheryl’s contributions to the text chain was a photo of herself holding a sign that said, “Alidapalooza 2023”. Although they hadn’t met, in that moment I felt held by a community, and that was precious and empowering.

Show up when it matters. I was presenting to the Boston Facilitators Roundtable several years ago, and was somewhat nervous, as it was material I was new to presenting. Cheryl made a point of being there and staying after for lunch so we could debrief the session. She also invited two other wonderful colleagues to join us – again creating that valuable sense of community. Left to my own devices, I would have spent the afternoon focused on what went wrong in the presentation. With the support of Cheryl and our friends, I was able to take a more balanced view of what had worked and what to do differently next time. It meant so much to me that they were there.

Say what you want and need and set boundaries that work for you. Over the years, Cheryl has been great about asking for what she needs from me and other friends. This really came through during her illness. She was clear about what she wanted – and also what she didn’t want or need. For example, we set some ground rules early on in her treatment. We agreed that while I wanted to support her and hear what she was going through, it would be up to her to raise it, especially if we were meeting about something else. She didn’t want every conversation to be about cancer. Sometimes it’s easy to think that we’re being burdensome or picky when we ask for exactly what we want. On the receiving end, I found the opposite was true – her clarity made it easier to care for her. I didn’t have to guess about what to do or not do.

Accept reality. Over the course of her cancer treatment, Cheryl developed a rhythm for dealing with change. At each step, she sorted through the data and the details, came to an understanding of reality, made a decision, and then accepted the consequences of her choice. The final decision – that she was done with treatment – was the hardest for me to accept. But when she shared it with me, it was clear that she was at peace with it. So much of our emotional suffering comes from fighting with reality. There’s a peacefulness that comes with acceptance. For Cheryl, accepting her fate freed her up to be present for her loved ones. It was her final gift to us all, as we spent those last precious visits drinking tea together and sharing memories.

As her family wrote in her obituary, “Always having a stack of new books to be read and always looking ahead with plans for friends and family gatherings (usually with good food and better laughter); Cheryl persisted in … optimism and planning through her ovarian cancer treatments, and she is probably still striding ahead to the next adventure, with gratitude and laughter. She’ll wait for you there.”

May we all learn to live with such presence.

P.S. This analogy has gotten me through some big losses over the past several years. 

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