Mary Long/Shutterstock

Sometimes my grief feels as though I’ve been left alone in a room with no doors. Every time I remember that my mother is dead, it feels like I’m colliding with a wall that won’t give… There’s no escape, just a hard surface that I keep ramming into over and over, a reminder of the immutable reality that I will never see her again.” – Michelle Zauner, author, “Crying in H Mart”

Over a recent six-month stretch, I existed in a grief-adjacent state. Among my circle of friends there were 10 deaths: They ranged from a 21-year-old gentle, creative soul with bright pink hair taken too soon by Duchenne muscular dystrophy, to the 80something mother of a friend and former colleague, whom we bid farewell to while doing the electric slide on the way out of the church. Also in the mix: a mother-in-law, two fathers, two brothers, a friend’s childhood bestie, and my divorce attorney, who passed as the result of a tragic skiing accident. It was a lot of loss and sadness to process in quick succession.

I attended a park celebration of life and a memorial service. I fielded grief-stricken texts, social media messages, emails, and phone calls from friends, who all expressed their sorrow in different ways. I gave hugs and flowers, delivered food, wrote cards, sent condolence messages, and made donations—whatever felt the most fitting in each circumstance—as anyone would do. It almost always felt inadequate.

The departure that affected me the most was the death of the husband of one of my best friends. G was a kind and decent man, shy and reserved, with a disarmingly dry wit whose life was cruelly cut short by blood cancer. He retired at 49, was diagnosed a year later, and endured more than six years of illness, hospitalizations, and treatments before passing at home with his wife and two daughters at his side.

Novshine/Shutterstock

Before he died and afterwards, I tried to figure out how best to help. Most of the time, I felt like I was doing a shoddy job.

Early in his sickness I made the mistake of bringing over a bunch of flowers, which were promptly banished to the outdoors. (Chemotherapy and radiation treatments typically leave a patient’s immune system compromised, and the bugs present in fresh flowers can put vulnerable patients at risk of an infection.) During lockdown, when nobody in the household could leave home, I delivered bags of the best bagels in town, punnets of strawberries from a favorite farmer, thin-crust pizza full of cheese-y goodness.  The youngest daughter told her Mom: “I think food is Sarah’s love language.”

In G’s final few months, I took the youngest daughter to college, got their car smog checked, and brought over meals. I planted herbs and produce (note to self: high maintenance alert), and gave the gardener the heads-up when a tree fell during a storm. I wrote a card to G; we don’t always have the opportunity to say goodbye to someone who is dying, but in this case, we did. I struggled with what to say. In the end I thought the most important thing was to thank him for loving my friend and to let him know that we would always have her –and his daughters’—backs.

My son, who was very fond of G, wrote to him about their shared geeky bonds and goofy humor. “One of my favorite parts of each summer was swinging by to discuss with you the new and exciting math that I had learned that year,” he wrote. “Mum and I watched the funniest shows and movies with the four of you, usually on your big TV, while we all ate P’s berry crumble with whipped cream.”

I gave books to my friend—a risky business choosing books for a librarian—but I did it anyway. One of them, which she had of course already read, was “Crying in H Mart,” Michelle Zauner’s memoir of losing her Korean mother to cancer at 25. It hit pretty close to home for my Korean-American pal, also the daughter of a Korean mother and Caucasian father, who fell gravely ill when she was a teen.  Both her parents are gone now. Her youngest child promptly started reading the memoir; the oldest already had. It would prove a touch point for me as I navigated grief in the immediate aftermath of G’s death.

Love, loss and Korean grocery snacks

Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart, a supermarket chain that specializes in Asian food. You’ll likely find me crying by the banchan refrigerators, remembering the taste of my mom’s soy-sauce eggs and cold radish soup. Or in the freezer section, holding a stack of dumpling skins, thinking of all the hours that Mom and I spent at the kitchen table folding minced pork and chives into the thin dough. Sobbing near the dry goods, asking myself, ‘Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?’” – Michelle Zauner, The New Yorker, 2018

Michelle Zauner, performing in Austin with her hugely popular indie pop band Japanese Breakfast (Shutterstock) Credit: Shutterstock

Crying in H Mart” began as the author’s meditation on grief, rejected by a slew of publications before it won a 2016 Glamour essay contest under the headline “Real life: Love, loss, and kimchi.” That paved the groundwork for a 2018 New Yorker piece that serves as the first chapter of her bestselling book debut. Zauner, who is adapting her memoir for a movie and supervising the soundtrack, is the founder and frontwoman for the ethereal dream pop band Japanese Breakfast, an indie darling nominated for two Grammys this year. As recounted in the book, Zauner lives in Brooklyn with her husband, a bandmember, whom she married while her mom was dying.

Zauner’s relationship with her mother was messy, complicated, and cut way too short. Her mother expressed affection best through food. “No matter how critical or cruel she could seem – constantly pushing me to meet her intractable expectations – I could always feel her affection radiating from the lunches she packed and the meals she prepared for me just the way I liked them,” writes the singer. Her mother’s tastes ran hot and salty—much like her parenting style. Zauner learned how to bond with her through an adventurous appetite.

The author is excellent on the sting of loss, the shock of a sudden demise, and the non-linear nature of grief. She doesn’t sugarcoat cancer’s indignities—she’s frank and unsparing about the unfairness of the condition and how excruciating it can be to care for someone dying from the disease. She recounts her mother’s last days, unconscious at home, her breathing “a horrible sucking like the last sputtering of a coffeepot.” She writes: “I moved back to Oregon to help my mother through chemotherapy; over the next four months, I watched her slowly disappear. The treatment took everything—her hair, her spirit, her appetite. It burned sores on her tongue. Our table, once beautiful and unique, became a battleground of protein powders and tasteless porridge. I crushed Vicodin into ice cream.”

When two rounds of chemo fail to shrink her intestinal tumor, her mother decided to forgo further rounds, having learned the hard way from watching her younger sister, who died of colon cancer following 24 chemo treatments. Zauner’s mom died two months later, two weeks after her musician daughter’s wedding. “Crying in H Mart unflinchingly details the ravages of cancer in a society determined to see it as an enemy that can be battled and beaten by strength, hope, holistic healing, and heavy-duty meds.

She finds solace from her grief in learning to cook the familiar foods of her mother’s kitchen. Zauner grieves while she preserves her connection to her Korean culture and the fierce woman who raised her to savor tender, spicy, and fiery flavors. Cooking proves an anchor and comfort, a form of therapy during a disorienting time, keeping her mother and her heritage close. “As I struggled to make sense of the loss, my memories often turned to food,” she writes. Whether at home testing recipes she found online or at H Mart perusing the snack food aisles, she felt her mom’s presence.

My grief comes in waves and is usually triggered by something arbitrary. I can tell you with a straight face what it was like watching my mom’s hair fall out in the bathtub, or about the five weeks I spent sleeping in hospitals, but catch me at H Mart when some kid runs up double-fisting plastic sleeves of ppeong-twigi and I’ll just lose it. Those little rice-cake Frisbees were my childhood: a happier time, when Mom was there and we’d crunch away on the Styrofoam-like disks after school. Eating them was like splitting a packing peanut that dissolved like sugar on your tongue. – “Crying in H Mart”

Navigating grief, loss, and pain

“Within the past five years, I lost both my aunt and mother to cancer. So, when I go to H Mart, I’m not just on the hunt for cuttlefish and three bunches of scallions for a buck; I’m searching for their memory. I’m collecting the evidence that the Korean half of my identity didn’t die when they did. In moments like this, H Mart is the bridge that guides me away from the memories that haunt me, of chemo head and skeletal bodies and logging milligrams of hydrocodone. It reminds me of who they were before: beautiful and full of life, wiggling Chang Gu honey-cracker rings on all ten of their fingers, showing me how to suck a Korean grape from its skin and spit out the seeds.” – “Crying in H Mart”

Right after G died, my friend P and her daughters were deeply sad and also relieved: G’s suffering was finally over. They described the death as both profound and ordinary – one minute they were washing G’s sheets, and before the load was done he was gone. As soon as possible they aired the house, returned the hospital bed, and gave away medical supplies they no longer needed. They seemed to want to expel any trace of sickness and death from their home. It was understandable. The final months, weeks, days, hours, and minutes had been hard, really hard. P needed to talk through her husband’s passing, and I was haunted by what she told me. Still, it felt the least I could do: Show up and let her speak her truth.

The family hosted their own version of shiva for seven days. People came to hang out in their backyard and shared anecdotes about G while they offered sympathy, produce from their gardens, and home baked goods. Lots and lots of baked goods. It was sweet, touching, sad, sometimes uncomfortable. And, as I learned, it was comforting, exhausting, and overwhelming for the bereaved. G’s “death is very much a marking point, we look at it as the beginning of a new chapter in our lives,” my friend explains. “So, even in our sadness we are able to look forward to a new future.”

The sort-of shiva taught me a lot about what is and isn’t helpful when a family is grieving. During this mourning period one daughter privately shared her feelings about the ceremony: “This is not your social hour, and I am not here to entertain you.” Cakes, cookies and loaves of bread are lovely offerings, nourishing meals better yet. Short visits can be the best visits. Avoid asking “What can I do to help?” Instead, find something that needs doing—buy groceries, clean the bathroom, fix the washing machine—and just do it.

The family noted the unease of others when they couldn’t figure out what to say or do—the visitors who never mentioned G by name or referenced his death in any way.  They appreciated people’s good intentions, even if those offering comfort felt they were falling short. One condolence card the family particularly appreciated came from a mutual friend. The P.S., said P, was priceless. “Apologies for this note! It’s so hard to know what to say. The sentiments are real, even if the words are awkward!”  P wrote to say it was “perfect,” and that she and her daughters loved it.

A primer from the bereaved

Grief, I’ve learned, from “Crying in H Mart” and my friends, is not a problem to be solved. It just is. It’s a process that requires kindness, gentleness, and patience. There is no rule book for grieving, no right or wrong way to deal with sorrow; the form and time frame grief manifests in each of us follows a similar path yet varies widely. And why wouldn’t it be so? Grief is both a universal and unique form of suffering, a way to make sense of unthinkable loss that we all experience more than once in our lifetimes.

Zauner discussing her memoir on YouTube (Penguin Random House)

For the grieving, there’s a period of recovery, transition, and adjustment. Emotions run the gamut: anger, agitation, sorrow, guilt, relief, loneliness. “Crying in H Mart” explores it all. Anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances are frequently part of the picture; brain fog and forgetfulness too. Some people don’t stop moving, as if to keep sadness at bay; some simply stop, overwhelmed by anguish. Others are consumed with making every day count or honoring the dead in some special way—like learning to make kimchi.

Back home, the oldest daughter in the family sent me a poignant 14-point manifesto on how to be present for friends or family experiencing the grief of a loved one, notes she’s been keeping in her journal since her Dad died on January 19. “I appreciate talking about grief with certain friends (it really depends on our relationship) but I’ve found that very few of them are open to/able to talk about it comfortably,” she wrote. “Often when it comes up I can tell how awkward it is for them, which does not make me want to continue the conversation. In this situation, there’s a huge lack of understanding, which is part of why I made that list. I wanted to make sure I was equipped to provide the kind of support that I would’ve really wanted.”

Some highlights from her journal: 

  • Reach out, even if in doubt. It’s better to err on the side of saying something than saying nothing.
  • Don’t say something to try to make the situation better because you can’t; just acknowledge how awful it is. 
  • Think of how you can support without being asked. And take into consideration the role the dead assumed in a friend or family member’s life. Help ease the burden of new responsibilities (for example, financial, house maintenance, technology, driving, car servicing, cooking, cleaning, gardening, parenting, elder care, pet duties). Play to your strengths.
  • Don’t t shy away from the subject just because it’s awkward or uncomfortable. It’s not like you are triggering the bereaved — it is already something they think about, a lot.
  • Try asking what the grieving process has felt like for the mourner, if you don’t know what to say. Concerned that a person may not want to discuss the death of a loved one? Ask: “Do you want to talk about it or would you rather be distracted?”
  • Don’t complain about trivial matters going on in your own life. It’s insensitive, and mourners have no bandwidth for petty problems in the face of shocking, life-altering loss.
  • Outward expressions of grief may pass, but sadness lingers. Don’t assume someone has “moved on” because they’re not crying or talking about their pain. Check in.

The family appreciated gestures both big and small. As my friend notes: “When hospice began, I was particularly touched by a very short text that said, ‘Sending you love.’ This kind of message did not require anything of me,” she explains. “I didn’t have to answer any questions or convey any information.” Caregivers appreciate acknowledgment too. “Another friend dropped by with a care package – a hardback novel, chocolate, and a lavender heat pack,” says P, who was grateful that someone had included a gift for her, the caregiver.

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to comfort the bereaved. One of my friend’s colleagues, whom she didn’t know well, stopped by soon after G’s death. It turns out she was a 19-year-old college student when she lost her own mother to cancer, so she knows a thing or two about what P’s youngest daughter, also 19, is going through. Another close friend, who lost her father when she was also in school, texts the girls almost weekly and has taken a special interest in them. 

I’ve learned valuable things about grief from my friends and Zauner’s memoir. Show up after someone dies and attend celebrations of life, wakes, and funerals, but continue to reach out after the immediate mourning period. Avoid platitudes — don’t comment on people’s appearance, bravery, or resilience — and don’t assume you can relate to how someone is feeling. Remember the person who died to the bereaved. “I loved getting a text recently from someone who saw a show and said they think G would have loved it,” says P. “It’s good to know he hasn’t been completely forgotten.”

Zauner created two albums that deal with loss and grief; her more recent work explores joy. My friend and her daughters are taking trips to favorite family places, leaving a little of G behind, to honor his wishes. They also added a new addition to their home: An easy-going puppy, who offers calm companionship.

For her part, author Michelle Zauner is keeping her mother’s memory alive through her memoir, music, and food.  “After my mom died, I was so haunted by the trauma of her illness I worried I’d never remember her as the woman she had been: stylish and headstrong, always speaking her mind,” she writes. “When she appeared in my dreams, she was always sick. Then I started cooking.”