When Her Mother Died, She Found Solace at a Korean Grocery

“The thing about Michelle is you just need to give her a little push in that direction — an affirmation — and suddenly she’s just flying,” said Daniel Torday, a novelist and the director of the creative writing program at Bryn Mawr, who has been a mentor to Zauner.

For her the artistic process, whether it is in her music or her writing, often feels all-consuming and anxiety-producing, something she handles by working through it. “If I’m going to take the time to go in on something,” Zauner said, “I want to be terrified of it.”

And there are terrifying parts she confronts when retracing the last few months of her mother’s life. It is not exactly the cancer — in the book, she describes the disease with polish, crushing Vicodin for her mother with a spoon and scattering its blue crumbs over scoops of ice cream “like narcotic sprinkles.” It is that Chongmi was dying just as their relationship was at its best, “a sort of renaissance period, where we were really getting to enjoy each other’s company and know each other as adults,” Zauner said.

In 2014, she moved back home to help care for her. Chongmi died that October, two weeks after Michelle Zauner married Peter Bradley, a fellow musician. By Christmas, he joined her and her father in Eugene, navigating the first heavy moment of their new life together — “like a baptism of adulthood,” Bradley said.

She and her father haven’t been in contact for more than a year, save for an attempt at therapy over Zoom. After her mother died, “our grief couldn’t come together in this way where we could experience it together,” Zauner said. “He started wearing this big ruby in his ear and then got a big tattoo, lost 40 pounds, started dating this young woman, and it felt like kind of a second death.”

In an essay for Harper’s Bazaar published earlier this month, she wrote about the pain of that experience, then searching for a way to make peace with him and his new relationship, which has since ended.