While Zauner and I had starkly different experiences, the grief we share for our mothers will always be a product of our love for them
I didn’t cry when my mom died.
Don’t get me wrong, my mom and I were close. Despite her separation from my dad, she always remained present in my life in one way or another, and she made sure never to forget to do that. Whenever we were together, without fail, she would snap a photo of the two of us to immortalize that memory. And when we were apart, she’d send me prayers and health reminders through Viber. She would even occasionally send me food so I could feel her love with every bite of her cooking.
From these testimonies alone, you can already tell that my mom loved me a lot, and I loved her just as much. So it wouldn’t make much sense that my cheeks remained dry from the moment I found out she died in 2021 to the second her casket was sealed shut forever.
The truth is, though, I had no idea how to grieve then.
I didn’t tell any of my closest friends that she died. When one of my high school best friends found out about my mom’s passing through my sister’s Facebook post, I asked her not to tell anyone else because I was repulsed by the idea of receiving comfort from others. For some reason, I didn’t want to be the friend who needed to be consoled. Rather, I wanted to always be the strong friend who consoled others. Until now, I’ve only told three other friends—not including the Grab driver to whom I told my entire life story during my 40-minute ride.
But late last year, I finally picked up the book ‘Crying in H Mart’ by Michelle Zauner (Alfred A. Knopf). It’s a beautifully written memoir that discusses the author’s complicated relationship with her mother, how she grappled with her eventual death, and what she did to keep her mother’s memory alive. Even before I finished reading the first page, my eyes had already begun to water.
On the surface, it would seem that Zauner and I have completely different stories. She watched her mom gradually succumb to terminal cancer, while my siblings and I were merely on a five-way phone call with the doctor who was trying to revive her when she was rushed to the hospital. My mom’s death was sudden and unexpected, while Zauner’s was slow and torturous.
However, my story intersects with Zauner’s in more ways than one.
“If there was a god, it seemed my mother must have had her foot on his neck, demanding good things come my way.”
Whenever anything good happens to me, I would always think to call my mom—forgetting for a moment that her booming voice would no longer be on the other end of the line. To this day, I always imagine my mom pestering the gods above to shower me with success—just like she had always done when she was alive.
When she died, I was in the middle of processing my application for my university’s student publication. It had always been my dream to become a journalist, and my mom was well aware of that. I carried on, using my application as a means of distracting myself from the flurry of emotions I had been feeling all at once. I even worked on some of the requirements at her wake, typing away while people went in and out of the chapel to offer condolences.
My mind had been at a thousand places all at once. I knew I didn’t have it in me to churn out an application that wouldn’t immediately be tossed into the reject pile, but I submitted it anyway.
To my surprise, I received an acceptance letter a week later. I’d like to think that it was my mom who pulled some strings from heaven to get me accepted. Becoming a campus journalist kickstarted my career. It was the one thing that afforded me the privilege of getting to write for the prestigious publications I never thought I would be good enough for. I have my mom to thank for that.
“My grief comes in waves and is usually triggered by something arbitrary.”
While I attribute all the exciting news I receive to my mom, there are days when I’d tear up at the slightest reminder of her. When I walked into Watsons one day to purchase my regular supply of toiletries, I found myself trying out different perfumes in the fragrance aisle. I picked up a green tester bottle of Body Fantasies perfume, sprayed it, and immediately felt a lump form in my throat.
It was my mom’s perfume, her signature scent, Cucumber Melon. I would have bawled my eyes out then and there if not for the other customers in the store.
On a separate occasion, a friend made a “mama mo” joke. Knowing my sense of humor, I would have laughed and fired back with a joke of my own in a similar fashion. Instead, I felt a pit in my stomach. It was honestly a silly reason to feel sad. I mean, who gets emotional over a harmless “mama mo” joke, right?
But through ‘Crying in H Mart,’ I’ve learned that you can’t control when grief decides to pay you a visit. It comes when you least expect it, and it has the power to make everything around you stop. That’s what makes grief so beautiful. Yes, it hurts like hell, but all this pain is rooted in one thing: love.
“The lessons she imparted, the proof her life lived on in me, in my every move and every deed. I was what she left behind. If I could not be with my mother, I would be her.”
I was clueless when it came to grieving my mom’s death. Although I’ve spoken about her a few times during some of my classes, this is the very first time I’m writing about her for everyone else to see. I admit, however, I have yet to become fully comfortable with talking about my mom so openly. But now, I’ve chosen to honor her in two ways: by keeping her alive through my writing, and by embodying her.
To fill in the gaps left by these unsaid words, I echo my mom’s being in discreet ways that only my family would notice. I now wear her silver and gold bracelets on my left wrist. They have become staples of my everyday look, and you’ll rarely see me without them.
This year, two years since her passing, I went to my mom’s house for the first time to go through her belongings. I brought home an entire pile of her clothes, which I now wear to sleep at night.
I used to always get comments about how I am the spitting image of my mother. I never understood why. I didn’t think I looked that much like her. Now, however, alongside “your mom would be so proud of you,” it is the remark I love to hear most. I have her round nose, the dark circles around her eyes, her long fingers, and even her two front teeth that stick out just a little more than the rest. I used to hate the way my teeth looked, but how could I possibly hate something that my mom and I share?
She is also the reason why I have over 10,000 photos and videos on my camera roll. Taking photos was the one thing I hated most as a temperamental pre-teen. I fit perfectly into the stereotype of the child who had been forced by her mom to smile for a picture. Now, though, just like her, I have learned to see the value of documenting every detail of my waking moments with those I love most.
Like Zauner, I still spend nights wondering what my mom would look like in her late eighties. I’d give anything to have a photo of her in her old age be a part of the thousands of keepsakes I have on my phone.
Until then, I will continue to emulate my mom—to become the vessel of the life she lived.