Listen: Brendan ‘Breno’ Cowie chats to Clare Bruce about his journey from grief to hope.
If there’s one Aussie dad who’s had an impossibly tough year, it’s Brendan ‘Breno’ Cowie.
The 33-year-old surfer, singer and pop-punk musician from Helensburgh, south of Sydney, lost the love of his life Cathleen in October last year—to a sudden and unexplained heart aneurysm.
She was just 35 years old.
The couple, who never fell out of love, first met when Brendan was 18, at Coastlands Church – now called Hope Church 2508 – where they were youth group leaders. After a fairytale proposal (a helicopter flyover with 58 surfboards spelling out ‘Marry Me’ on the beach below), they wed in 2008.
Needless to say, Cathleen’s death was a bombshell that tore Brendan’s world apart. Suddenly a solo dad, he was plunged into a dark valley of grief, yet still had to find courage to continue raising five-month-old Ryan.
Yet despite his pain, Brendan now has a newfound strength – thanks to his faith, and a remarkable spiritual encounter.
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Brendan speaks glowingly of his wife and their time together.
“Cat had a real heart for people,” he said. “She loved building God’s kingdom and was very passionate about young adults and youth. She really poured her heart into a lot of people that were broken, who would come into the gym [that she managed], and if they had problems she’d comfort them. She was just beautiful.”
The tragedy shocked the Illawarra community, and together friends and supporters raised $95,000 through a crowd-funding website to help Brendan. Their generosity left him “gobsmacked” and is testament to the kindness Cathleen showed others.
“She couldn’t think of anything else better to do than bring God to the community, and just love,” Brendan said.
Too Young to Die
There are many ironies to Cathleen’s devastatingly young death.
First, she was a fitness fanatic who managed a women’s gym, ate well, kept a pantry full of “bird seed” according to Brendan, and did all she could to stay energetic and healthy. Secondly, she’d just given birth to her ‘miracle baby’ after trying for four years, and was embracing motherhood with joy. In fact she was in the middle of running a seminar for other young mums, at the moment of her death.
“No-one saw it coming,” Brendan said.
“He pulled me aside and said, ‘Mate, I’m so sorry but she’s gone.’”
The couple’s last day together started out like any normal day, with Cathleen getting ready for her mums-and-bubs seminar, and Brendan rushing out the door for work. Cathleen asked him to stop and give her a “big kiss” before he left – something he’s now deeply thankful for.
“I gave her a really big kiss, and then that’s the last time I saw her.”
Later that day came the phone call that changed his life.
“I came from work, I felt sick in the guts, and I just saw her there on the ground, lifeless,” he recalls. “It just broke me down. I was in tears, and I didn’t know what was going on. They flew a surgeon out and he pulled me aside and said, ‘mate, I’m so sorry but she’s gone.’
“You see it on movies, you see it on the news, but when it actually happens to you, it’s just so surreal.”
Unleashing His Anger at Heaven
Brendan struggled for a long time to accept that a “faithful woman of God” could die so young, and almost walked away from his faith. Looking back, he says he “literally hated” God for a season.
“I was a mess,” he said. “For about four months, I would curse God. I had the biggest potty mouth you could imagine…and my love for Him was gone. I couldn’t trust Him, I couldn’t walk with Him. I was so hurt and damaged.”
Resentment simmered, as did the ‘why’ questions, and Brendan felt God was cruel and had taken his wife away.
That all changed, though, when a spiritual encounter – which Brendan can only describe as the presence of God – set him on the path “back home”.
The Audible – and Visible – Whisper of God
One night, after recording a tribute song to Cathleen in the studio, Brendan was lying in bed. Listening to the song he’d just finished creating, he began crying his heart out—and unleashing his anger on God.
“I just remember looking up at God and I said, ‘I hate you, I hate you so much, what you’ve done to me’,” he said.
“I knew right then and there, this is God talking to me. He said, ‘It’s OK to be angry, Bren’.”
It was at that moment that Brendan heard a ‘clear and vivid’ yet ‘gentle’ voice, whispering audibly in his ear. It said, ‘Bren, I love you mate. You don’t understand what’s going on right now, but you will. You need to trust me.’
Brendan is in no doubt that the voice was God.
“You can discern the voice of the Holy Spirit from something that’s not of God,” he says. “I knew right then and there, this is God talking to me. He said, ‘It’s OK to be angry, Bren. I can take it, I’m God. I created the emotion, anger. But if you stay like this forever, there will be consequences in your eternity. If you want to see me, and if you want to see Cat again, your only hope is through me.’
“I heard Him say, ‘I know the pain and suffering that you’ve gone through; I lost someone very dear to me too’ – which was his son, Jesus.”
This spiritual encounter wasn’t just a voice; it was a full audio-visual experience. It not only made Brendan’s jaw drop, but also dissolved his anger.
“Because I was crying so much, I could see the words getting painted up in my head, flashing before me while I was crying. That’s when I got my life back together, and I started repenting, saying ‘I’m so sorry Lord, thank you for meeting with me’. It was just a profound moment.”
Over time, Brendan rebuilt his trust in God, and gained a new understanding of His love.
“He understood where I was at,” he says. “God’s so understanding, He’s so loving. His grace is just so incredible that we can’t comprehend it.”
Facing All The Milestones Alone
Like many people who’ve lost someone close, Brendan has found celebrations and milestones are the hardest times. Christmas Day, family holidays, Mother’s Day, anniversaries, and Ryan’s first birthday have all been painfully lonely.
But he’s found many reasons to dig deep and keep going—most of all his young son, who still responds with glee to photos of Cathleen. Brendan can’t wait to teach little Ryan all the important life skills, like surfing, skating, and “rocking out with Dad on the guitar”.
“Ryan was a massive thing for me, because I know his mum would want me to bring him up knowing God,” he said. “And that started off by me getting my relationship with God right first. I really want him to see his mother again one day. That gives me hope.”
While Brendan’s got mixed emotions about upcoming Father’s Day celebrations – and is painfully aware that grief can “catch up to you when you least expect it” – he’s got a feeling he’s going to be OK.
‘Time Doesn’t Heal, But It Gets Easier’
Going by his own experience, Brendan doesn’t believe in the old saying that ‘time is a healer’.
“You never heal from something like this,” he said. “You’ll carry it for the rest of your life. It’s a scar. But I do believe that you get stronger, and you deal with it. It gets easier, that’s how I look at it. I’m actually in a really good place now. God’s given me strength to move forward in life for Ryan and myself.”
He’s also accepted that Cathleen’s in a good place, believing she’s with Jesus in heaven, and can now see the fruit of the many prayers that were prayed for him after her death.
“At the time, I wasn’t in a good relationship with God and I was [thinking], ‘Useless! Why are you praying for me? There’s no point!’ But where I am now, I see the blessing God’s doing with Ryan and I. I see the love that he’s poured into us, I feel the peace now. It’s all because of prayer, and God just moving slowly with me.”
Much to Look Forward To
With a happy young son as his “best mate”, plans to return to full-time work in 2017, and a promising new relationship just beginning, Brendan has a lot to look forward to. His band Lower Coast Skies – a pop-punk group with an occasional Christian twist – is currently on a long break, but they intend to start gigging again when life becomes more manageable.
“I thank God that I can move forward in life now…there’s always hope.”
While Brendan doesn’t have all the answers about what he’s been through, he now takes a positive outlook, and wants to encourage others going through similar trials. He recently added his voice to the It’s OK To Talk suicide prevention campaign, and is keen to help other men who are struggling.
“I don’t understand God’s ways,” he said. “But that’s ok. I just know when we get to heaven one day we won’t care because we’ll be in paradise.
“I will always love and respect and honour Cat, but I thank God that I can move forward in life now, and just enjoy life to the full and make the most of it. There’s always hope.”
If you’re going through depression or struggling in some other way and need to talk, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.