Monday , February 26 2024
How do you cope with the loss of an estranged sibling, and the outpourings of sympathy from well-intentioned friends?

‘Sorry for Your Loss’ – On the Death of an Estranged Brother

I know the numbness of loss. I felt it when I lost my father at too-young an age; I felt it with my aunt’s death of pancreatic cancer, and when my grandmother died just shortly before I became pregnant with my first child. I felt it keenly when my mother passed away four years ago.

Earlier this week, I received a phone call; my brother Lowell died. It was a strange feeling. I didn’t feel numb, or even particularly sad (which, of course, made me feel guilty). You see, my brother has really not been part of my life for many, many years–decades. Most of my, even close, friends had no idea that I had a brother. Little Boy Blues

I posted on Facebook, noting his passing, and a bit about who he was (or at least what I remember of him from all those decades ago). And then began the long list of condolences.

“So sorry for your loss,” “Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family,” “We know you must feel a terrible hole in your heart.” But how do you respond to the outpouring of sympathy and friendship when you don’t feel even the stirrings of grief? My brother, eight years my senior, was a stranger to me, estranged and absent from my life–almost completely.

The reminiscences made me smile, for I too had been thinking of the good times. Those I could handle, but the heartfelt, well-intentioned outpouring of sympathy made me uncomfortable.

Then a good, wise friend suggested to me that perhaps I might understand “sorry for your loss” differently than what conventional wisdom dictates. Loss means many things, she reminded me. It’s up to me to define it, to understand “sorry for your loss” in a way that’s meaningful to me. For me, I decided, this loss is the loss of years: missed weddings, missed births, missed deaths, missed life, missed opportunity. It’s a context I’d not considered, but it provided me with some perspective–and something upon which to hang my feelings about his passing.

As long-time friends began to reminisce on Facebook about remembering his band (a very popular ’60s Chicago rock band called the Little Boy Blues), their songs, listening to him play guitar, I too, began to think of the times we’d had together, the influence he’d had on me, both musically and politically. How I’d steal his paperbacks, and was thus introduced to Ian Fleming, Joseph Heller, Franz Kafka, and Mad Magazine; how I’d admire his brave politics: anti-war, anti-nuke, anti-racism, and proudly wore his Student Peace Union button when I was but a child of 10.

I recalled how much I loved being “Lowell’s little sister” when I attended a Byrds concert at 12 years old, and Jim (Roger) McGuinn knew me when I introduced myself in front of a group of my pre-teen friends. And how Lowell never failed to score an autograph when his band opened for Herman’s Hermits, or the Dave Clark Five, or the Rolling Stones. And how he taught me my first guitar chords on a beat up old Martin guitar, and how Martin continues to be my guitar maker of choice. I see in my mind’s eye–so clear now, even five decades hence–watching the Little Boy Blues practice in our backyard, and recall that my junior high school halted class so we could all watch his band perform on Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is. That’s the Lowell Shyette I remember with the most fondness.

I remember his attachment to Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood as part of the thriving artist-musician scene in the 1960s, and although I was far too young to have appreciated it personally then, it left an indelible impression on me. And, when I was finally old enough to visit the coffee houses and clubs he’d haunted, they were waiting for me. Ironically, I happened to be in Old Town over the weekend, attending a Second City performance. It’s been many years since I’d been in that part of Chicago, and there is little left of what made it a special place–only ghosts: a shadow here, a whisper there. Dead and gone, but for the memory of the place (and Second City).

So, you see, the memories of Lowell are there, and as vivid as if they had just happened, although they are all through the prism of a 10-year-old starstruck little sister, and decades old. And by the time I was 12, he’d left the area, never really to return, first caught in the draft, and then off to Los Angeles to pursue his dream, placed on hold by the army. I followed his career with all the pride of a little sister as he toured with John Davidson, Glen Campbell and Chris Crosby.

But something changed in him somewhere along the way. Maybe it was the army (he was drafted just on the cusp of his breakout in the music industry); maybe it was the reality in the years that followed of just how tough and cruel the industry can be. Maybe it was drugs. I’ll never know. There was a falling out with our mother, and, sadly, a severing of his relationship with us all. But those memories are hazy, informed only by occasional contact and reports from Mom.

His final decades were spent in Nashville, making music, even spending some years working with Leo Fender (yes, that Leo Fender–of Fender Guitars). He had a minor Christmastime hit called “Santa Drives a Peterbuilt,” still played in the season, and recorded albums dedicated to Ronald Reagan and John Wayne,  ironic somehow for a man who in his younger days had most admired Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, marched with peace buttons and protest signs.

So, I’ll remember Lowell, his Little Boy Blues, and his early musical and political tastes that so profoundly influenced my own, and mourn the loss of years, which will be missed and, sadly, never to be recovered. Rest in peace, Lowell.

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About Barbara Barnett

A Jewish mother and (young 🙃) grandmother, Barbara Barnett is an author and professional Hazzan (Cantor). A member of the Conservative Movement's Cantors Assembly and the Jewish Renewal movement's clergy association OHALAH, the clergy association of the Jewish Renewal movement. In her other life, she is a critically acclaimed fantasy/science fiction author as well as the author of a non-fiction exploration of the TV series House, M.D. and contributor to the book Spiritual Pregnancy. She Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (

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  1. Simply a beautiful, eloquent tribute.

  2. Lowell was a dear friend for the last twenty years. We were both originally from Northern Illinois, had a connection with Leo Fender and G&L guitars, and with Gibson. He visited me in our shop weekly or more and always had a smile on his face and something he just traded for to show me. He loved his wife, Roxanna, with his whole heart and treated her like a queen. He mourned the broken relationship with his family and spoke of them often. He got a mandolin for his nephew a few years ago from me and was so proud of that young man. I do offer my sorrow for your loss. It was his too. It was a great loss for both of you. I do want you to know that he truly cared about you!

    • Hey Joe! That Loar Mandolin for my son Adam 🙂 I so appreciate your thoughts about Lowell. Thank you for taking the time to add them.

      That love of trading instruments came straight from our dad, who always delighted in picking up an old Martin or Gibson in trade. That old Martin I spoke of in the article was one of those ancient axes complete with coffin case.

  3. Excellent article, Barbara!

    But I thought it was all about people: your brother, family, you. Not guitars. Maybe I was wrong, but I don’t think so. I learned nothing about guitars, but I heard clearly the sounds of the love, resentment, disappointment and estrangements of family life. Brothers, fathers, sisters, mothers, children. The whole sordid story!

    My Big Bro was 8 years older than me and I remember a few precious gems from our life: the autumn day with leaf smoke aroma hanging in the air when he came home from The War and appeared at our family dinner table as I arrived home from my Apache Braves guerilla activities as an 8 year old boy, stealing carrots and radishes from someones Victory Garden, planning our evening raid on a neighbors appletree. Bro had intercepted a small package from the family mailbox, and grinning broadly, presented me with the Captain Midnight decoding badge I was waiting for!

    I remembered the photo of Big Bro, sent from some unnamed South Pacific island in 1944, Bro and 3 buddies standing with a bomber in the back ground. Shirtless, suntanned, dogtags, grinning, with the sans souci slouch of 18 year old gallants who the people at home knew could be depended upon. They looked like giants who could stride the earth, even though the little Kodak #127 snapshot was only about one inch square.

    • Hey Bliffle. Thanks for sharing your story.

      • But the guitar gods have sent me this KALW podcast (West Coast Live, Sedge Thompson) of Roger McGuinn explaining how he made his 7-string guitar and next is Leo Kottke, Maybe he’ll do “I’m the Guy Who Didn’t Marry Pretty Pamela Brown”, Tom T. Halls ode to Piaf and Brel, maybe.

  4. Barbara, you beautiful, wonderful soul.

    Thank you for this lovely tribute to your brother. I wish you peace.

  5. The threads that bind us cannot be severed. It may be stretched and even fray at times, but the connections are always there. Memory is a gift that makes our lives possible. I remember the lines from Doctor Who. We are different people in different stages of our lives. And yet we are the same person. As long as we remember who we were and where we have been. Your reminiscence shows that the empathy, the connection, was never truly lost.