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A Good Goodbye

My last communications with my brother were loving. It could have been different.

By Jill Smolowe

I've buried a lot of loved ones — too many loved ones. It's never easy. But I'll say this about loss: each time, it teaches me something new about grief.

Two side-by-side photos of a brother and sister. Next Avenue
Frome left, Jill Smolowe and her older brother Alan in 1957 and 2013  |  Credit: Courtesy of Jill Smolowe

My first husband, Joe, died in 2009, two years after a leukemia diagnosis. My baby sister, Ann, died in 2010, two years after a colon cancer diagnosis. My mother went 18 days after Ann, and my father in 2018, both of them essentially of old age. All four losses left me bereft and hollowed out, but the numbness owed nothing to shock. In each case, it had been clear for a while that there might not be a happy outcome.

Always supportive, encouraging and proud of his three sibs, he was never competitive with us.

Earlier this year, I lost my older brother Alan just 44 hours after he suffered a stroke. He was 69, an age our kids and grandchildren might think old, but you and I know is not. He was with us. Then, he was not. His sudden disappearance feels shocking for me and my younger brother, Jonathan. So does the fact that our tight-knit band of four siblings is now two.

Yet the fact of Alan's death has not left me bereft and hollowed out. This time round, my sadness is eased by relief, gratitude and a tide of happy memories that make me smile. Let me explain.

A Role Model of a Big Brother

Alan, my senior by 19 months, was a role model of a big brother. Always supportive, encouraging and proud of his three sibs, he was never competitive with us. That he had lady-slaying good looks and was a graceful, natural athlete never stirred envy in Jonathan, Ann or me. He never lorded any of that over us. My parents refused to play favorites. And Alan's raunchy humor shielded us from feeling like he was the heir and we the spares.

After careers in marketing and real estate, he changed course, getting two doctorates in education. He then co-founded three charter schools for children with learning disabilities. The students adored him. So did his wife and son. His life was good.

Then Alan's body turned against him. Hobbled by immune deficiencies and arthritis, he spent the last 13 years of his life battling daily acute pain that disrupted his sleep, added weight to his once-slender body and left him unable to participate in any of the sports he loved. While his mind remained active, his body gradually closed the doors on his once-active life until he became essentially a shut-in.

No longer able to listen to one another, we drifted further and further apart.

So, relief? Yes, I and other loved ones, too, are relieved that Alan is no longer in pain. Though he never complained, it was clear that he was suffering every hour of every day.

Challenges in Our Relationship

As for gratitude, I am oh, so thankful that Alan and I parted on loving terms that have left me filled with happy memories of him. It could have been different. There could have been a lot of regret.

In recent years as political differences hardened across the country, tearing apart many families, the red-blue divide between Alan and me, hitherto quiet and largely unaddressed, deepened.

Things grew more tense during COVID when Alan refused to get vaccinated. Knowing that his own immune system would not weather COVID well, Alan stayed at home, so he never put others at risk. But our divergent views put our relationship at risk.


No longer able to listen to one another, we drifted further and further apart. The humor that had been a hallmark of our relationship evaporated. The little surprise gifts we mailed each other stopped. The frequency of our phone calls, emails and texts diminished. I knew less and less about his life; he knew less and less about mine.

It was a stroke of luck that three weeks before Alan's sudden death, I texted him the name of a movie I thought he and his wife, Lou Anna, might enjoy. He responded with the name of a TV series he thought my husband and I would like. Bob and I binge-watched it and a week later I phoned Alan to thank him for the recommendation. The tenor of the call was friendly, not tense, so when he asked how I was, I filled him in. There was a lot.

I am grateful that our final communications were loving and caring.

Alan hadn't known that for many months Bob has been battling acute pain, following what we'd hoped would be a pain-relieving back surgery. He hadn't known that Bob's adult son was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was now often staying with us while he deals with chemo and intolerable pain. Alan hadn't known that I was back in a worried, caregiving mindset, with little relief in sight.

Grateful for Reconnection

I could feel Alan's empathy as he encouraged me to make travel plans with friends and do the things I enjoy (as he'd encouraged Lou Anna these last 13 years). In his repeated murmur of, "I didn't know," I could hear how much he wished I'd told him sooner so he could be there for me. I could feel his love and concern each time he said, "Oh, Meus," our mutual nickname for each other.

Over the next two weeks, Alan made his caring presence felt. He called to check up on me. He sent inspirational short videos. He emailed single-frame comics, and movie and TV suggestions. I found myself thinking, I am so glad that my brother is back in my life.

Then, he disappeared again, this time forever.

Sad as that is, my feelings of gratitude have only strengthened since Alan's abrupt departure. I am grateful that Lou Anna held the phone to his ear in his final hours (induced coma be damned) so that I could tell Alan how fortunate I've been to have him for my big brother. I am grateful that our final communications were loving and caring.

And I am especially grateful that Alan and I had a good goodbye. Instead of being left to wallow in regret, I am basking in affectionate memories of my big bro (many of them too raunchy to share).

Alan would hate that I'm saying this, but he really was a prince of a brother.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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