How to Write a Memoir While Grieving

Nicole Chung contemplates loss, adoption, and working on a book her late father won’t get to see.

Nicole Chung | Longreads | March 2018 | 11 minutes (2,845 words)

I am writing a book my father will never see. Not in its entirety, not out in the world. He got through about half of my first draft, my mother said, or maybe a little bit more, sometimes using a magnifying glass to read the manuscript I’d sent in 12-point double-spaced Times. When I heard this, I berated myself — I should have thought of that; I should have sent a larger-print version. “Honey, it wouldn’t have mattered,” Mom said. “He had to use the magnifying glass for all his reading, even the bigger type.”

Why didn’t I know that? Because I was far away, across the country. Because he didn’t read books on the too-rare occasions when we were together; he was focused on spending time with me. Because, while I asked about his health all the time, I never asked, specifically, how does he read these days? One more thing I hadn’t known about my father. One more thing to reproach myself for.

He did read part of my book. I think about that every day. He and my mom would sometimes read it aloud, together, chapter by chapter, working their way through it in the evenings after she got home from work. When my dad died suddenly, six days into the new year, they were still several chapters from the end.


Before leaving for the funeral I had to make our excuses to a fellow parent, because my younger daughter would miss her child’s birthday party while we were in Oregon.

I’m sorry, Nicole, the other mom texted. It’s so hard to lose a parent. But it will be a comfort to see your father live on in your children.

I stared at the words for a moment, almost uncomprehending in my numbness and grief, until the realization broke. Right. She doesn’t know that I’m adopted.


Sometimes I wonder if I wrote a really bad book, and everyone is just afraid to tell me because my father is dead.

The final manuscript was due to the copyeditor the day after I found out. I could have gotten more time. Probably as much as I asked for. But I couldn’t abide the thought of it hanging over me in Oregon, at his funeral, after I came home and tried to return to my routines. And besides, I had not collapsed. I wasn’t weeping all the time. I had cried a little, but mostly I felt confused — and out of focus, as if I were viewing everything and everyone in the world through a new and mystifying fog. I was still several days away from the raging breakdown I would have in the shower in our hotel room, more than a week removed from the morning when I would wake up from a dream in which my father was alive and find myself unable to get out of bed. I was sad, of course, but I was still me, still functional to the point where it felt silly not to work.

I knew that I was in shock. I knew the grief would soon hit me with inescapable force. I remember thinking, I should do this now. I should finish my edits before it really hits me that he’s gone. So that’s what I did, although I found it difficult to breathe while reading a few scenes focused on my father.

When my dad died suddenly, six days into the new year, he and my mom were still several chapters from the end of my manuscript.

I don’t expect admiration for this ability to compartmentalize, to put my head down and work. It’s honestly a little strange to realize this is how my brain works, even in grief; to confront that cold moment of calculation, when I realized the lull before the storm was the only time I might get to finish the book.

And that, maybe, is one of few traits I got from my parents, two people who spent years working jobs they sometimes disliked, or didn’t want to do, in order to support us. In our family, we were used to emergencies; used to lurching from crisis to crisis, paycheck to paycheck, never really stopping because we couldn’t. I have seen both my parents push down regret and sorrow and fear and do what they had to do, over and over again. It’s what I do, too, even when I don’t do it well.


Of course, you finish a book many times before it’s finished. I don’t remember the exact day I completed the first full draft, but I know I held onto it for a few craven weeks before sending it to my parents the day after Thanksgiving. I knew they needed to read it; I knew I needed their honest reactions, whatever they were. Still, I dreaded showing it to them.

I heard nothing for over a month. “I know you’re really busy,” I finally said to them on the phone, “but it’s not, like, War and Peace.” I joked, because that’s what I do when I’m nervous, but deep down I feared their silence meant they had read it and were angry with me.

It’s never been easy to figure out how to write about my family. My families. My mom and dad certainly didn’t know what they were getting into when they acquired blank journals and old electric typewriters and secondhand computers that could barely run a word processing program without crashing, all so I could get my stories down. When you’re raising a child, when she’s yours and you can’t picture the alternative and you’re just doing the best you can, you’re probably not thinking about some far-off day when she might publish it all in a memoir. I’ve never quoted Czesław Miłosz to my parents — “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” — though I’ve been tempted once or twice.

But I wasn’t actually born into my adoptive family. And for all my thinking and writing about adoption over the years, for all my certainty that it is not a single event in my past but rather a lifelong story to be reckoned with, I had never really considered how my adoption — the way I joined my family, and the obvious reason for our many differences — would tint the edges of my grief when I lost one of them.


At some point, you learn that the whole point of life, for most creatures, is to pass on their genes before they die. In 7th grade biology class, our teacher — who had a PhD, a species of water beetle named after him, and a strong philosophical streak — told us, almost as an aside, that for humans it was one way we made peace with our eventual end. A way of grasping at immortality. We wouldn’t live on, but our offspring — our genes — would.

Even back then, I remember thinking, That’s not gonna work out for my parents.

I am not carrying on the family line. My father won’t live on in me, or in my children. At least not in the physical sense, not so close that I will ever catch glimpses of him. When he was alive, he couldn’t see himself in me, either.

We were so different, in obvious, unavoidable ways that had nothing to do with my Koreanness or his whiteness. He was always cracking jokes when I most wanted to be serious. He worked very hard for as long as he could, but somehow never understood what drove me; he’d watch me tapping away at the keyboard or writing in notebooks until my hand cramped up, and it was as strange to him as his obsession with the Cleveland Browns was to me. He managed to be fiercely proud of me without caring much at all about my grades or my work ethic or the degrees I earned. He could be extremely anxious himself, yet he didn’t understand my own fear of being trapped, of standing still or losing myself, and how this was at the root of everything I pushed myself to do. He did not understand my career. While we shared some core values, he was white and very conservative and I am neither of those things.

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The last time I saw him in person, we had one of our worst fights. It wasn’t about the election, though I was angry with my family about that. It wasn’t about adoption, either, or our differences — but then, in a way every fight was about our differences, our inability to fully understand one another. Our last fight is something I’ll always regret, though I did try hard to avoid it. He swore at me in front of my kids, and in that moment I wondered why I’d gone home at all.

Neither of my parents loved me any less for being adopted. If anything, they would say their love for me was all the greater for it. I have never seriously doubted their love, but I have wondered if my adoption might have added a little more anxious weight to our disagreements and disparities; made us all feel just a little more insecure, in some hard and unspeakable way. At times, when I’ve been most upset with them, or they with me, I have felt they couldn’t possibly have adopted someone they understood less. And I’m sure they have had similar, unwelcome thoughts about me in anger or frustration or just confusion — How did we end up with a daughter like her?

The final manuscript was due to the copyeditor the day after I found out. I could have gotten more time. But I couldn’t abide the thought of it hanging over me in Oregon, at his funeral, after I came home and tried to return to my routines.

I know my dad loved me and I know he was proud of me — how many people never get that assurance from a parent? And yet there were times when I know we didn’t make total sense as parent and child. Not because of my race, or his, necessarily. But I could never quite rule out adoption as a factor. When what ties you to one another is not blood or birth or even choice on all sides, but one momentous decision and the mutual agreement that you are family — when you haven’t always belonged to one another, and can imagine countless scenarios in which you would never have met — is it just a little more worrisome when you fight and those bonds are pulled and tested? When you simply can’t understand one another? When one of you is gone forever?


I often wonder if I would have become a storyteller if not for adoption. On the one hand, that is in my genes: my birth father is a writer. Yet I do think it was partly feeling like an outsider — not just in my white family, but in the place where I grew up — that first made me look for a way to express who I was while searching for other worlds to escape to. My parents never understood any of this, but they did encourage my writing, and were curious enough about it to sneak into my room and read my stories when I wasn’t around.

Most of what Dad knew of my book was what Mom read to him. When they told me they were through the first half and liked it so far, I was relieved beyond measure. That was the half I feared might upset them — because I wrote about facing racism I never told them about; because I mentioned information about my birth family, which I learned they had hidden from me; because I devoted an entire chapter to their own history and how they came to be my parents, together. I told the truth with love, but I told it as a story. I pictured my mother telling me I had no right to do this, no right to turn them into characters.

I’d been so afraid of them disputing my memories, saying that’s not what happened, telling me I shouldn’t have written about adoption and race and all these things we never found it easy to talk about. But they were both positive about it. They lauded my memory. Dad was happy I remembered one particularly bad joke he used to make about my adoption. Mom said the story was “more like a novel than I expected, but it was also the truth.”

It’s not the book either of my parents would have written about our family. But neither of them believed it was their place to question my interpretation of events, my perspective, which memories seemed most important to me. They didn’t ask me to add anything or take anything out. Far from the angry or hurt reaction I feared, they seemed excited about it, if still a little perplexed that I was writing it at all.

It’s never been easy to figure out how to write about my family. My families. My mom and dad certainly didn’t know what they were getting into when they acquired blank journals and old electric typewriters and secondhand computers, all so I could get my stories down.

In one of the last phone conversations we had, around the holidays, my dad called my rough, imperfect manuscript “a great Christmas present.” I think about that every day, too. Not because my book was the most important thing between us, not because it is the full or final word on our relationship, but because it is such a deep and personal expression of who I am — including some parts that I have sometimes, to my own shame, actively hidden from my adoptive family. Showing my book to my parents meant showing them who I am, with no spin, no soothing, no apologies, no disclaimers. I was afraid they’d reject it, reject me. Instead, their response was, We see you.


Someone recently asked me how my dad’s funeral went, and I said, “It was beautiful. My mother was really happy with how it went. And my sister was there with me, which was so kind of her.”

The person nodded, looking a little confused. Isn’t that obvious? their expression seemed to say. Of course your sister was there.

“Oh,” I said, “no. She didn’t have to be there. We don’t have the same dad. Ah, but we do have the same parents.”

They just kept looking at me, like, Sorry, you’ll have to give me a bit more.

People like to say that only children are selfish. As an only child, I suppose one of my more selfish fears has always been facing the death of a parent alone. But, in the end, I wasn’t alone: I had my husband of fourteen years. I had my brother-in-law, making jokes my dad probably would have appreciated. And I had my sister, who has known me for a decade but looks out for me as if it’s a lifetime job. She and her husband took the day off work, took my niece out of school, and drove the five hours from Portland to be at the funeral. I told them they didn’t have to come. They barely knew my dad, had only met him once. “We want to be there for you,” my sister said. “We’re family. That’s what we do.”

After the services and the reception, my mom invited my sister and her family over to her house. We all sat around talking, watching the three cousins chase each other around and shoot goofy videos together. There is something uniquely comforting about having young kids around when you’re grieving. I could tell my mom was happy to see them. Who knows if it took her mind off anything — who knows if that is possible, when you lose your spouse of 45 years — but she smiled and shook her head at the cousins’ antics and lectured them a bit, and I could see that it was good for her.

Eventually, the conversation turned to my book. I felt like a self-conscious teenager sitting there on my parents’ old sofa, listening to everyone else discuss the words I’d agonized over for a year — words I still worried fell far short of feelings I’d had for a lifetime. My brother-in-law kicked it off by marveling that I’d summed him up in a sentence. My sister said that reading the book made her feel like she knew my dad a little, and she was glad she got to meet him before he died. My mom, in turn, mentioned how much she enjoyed learning more about my birth family.

I often wonder if I would have become a storyteller if not for adoption. On the one hand, that is in my genes: my birth father is a writer. Yet I do think it was partly feeling like an outsider — not just in my white family, but in the place where I grew up — that made me almost desperate for a way to express who I was.

I was mostly silent, listening to these people related to me by birth and adoption and marriage all talking about the various curiosities and connections between us, with me as the nucleus. What did these vastly different, open-hearted people have in common? Just their love for me. It was a scene like nothing I could have imagined — certainly not as a kid growing up adopted, not even when I first found my birth family. It felt good to witness it, to be with all of them at once. I felt my dad’s love and his pride, but also his absence, stronger than ever.

At the end of the day, my adoptive mom hugged my biological sister and her husband, thanking them for being there. “Of course,” they said. “You’re family now, too.” I don’t remember which of the three of them said they hoped we’d all get the chance to be together again. But I found myself hoping for the same.

* * *

Nicole Chung has written for the New York Times, BuzzFeed, HazlittGQand Shondaland, among other publications. She is the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The ToastHer memoir, All You Can Ever Know, will be published in October 2018. Signed copies can be preordered from Powell’s.

Editor: Sari Botton