Grief, wrote Nicole Chung in her new memoir “A Living Remedy,” is like waking up every day in a different house. “I am continually losing my bearings, struggling to learn the layout anew,” she wrote. “I will walk through a door in my mind that I didn’t even notice the day before, trip over a memory I’ve relived a thousand times, and it’s as if I were seeing the space around me, breathing in this hushed loneliness, for the first time.”

All of us who’ve experienced the devastating loss of a loved one can appreciate her eloquent words. Grief is a strange, disorienting experience; one that you can’t comprehend until it happens to you, and one that doesn’t come with a set of rules.

For Chung, who will speak about her new book at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library on April 19, it came as wave upon wave over several years. Her father died in 2018 of complications from diabetes and kidney disease at age 67, a few months before the publication of Chung’s first bestselling memoir, “All You Can Ever Know,” in which she explored what it meant to be adopted and to be a different race from the family she grew up in. (Born in Seattle in 1981 to Korean immigrant parents, she was adopted as an infant by a white couple and grew up in a small Oregon town, raised as an only child in a loving and often financially insecure household.) In the spring of 2020, as pandemic isolation set in, Chung experienced a double loss: her grandmother in April, her mother in May.

Those experiences shaped “A Living Remedy,” which was originally planned to focus on the aftermath of Chung’s father’s death. Finding herself with some time after “All You Can Ever Know,” Chung had begun work on a second memoir. “I was beginning to think about what I had to say about grieving my father and the injustice about how he died,” Chung said, in a telephone interview from her home in the Washington, D.C., area where she lives with her husband and two children. “My mother and I were talking so much about the help we wished he’d gotten, the medical care he wasn’t able to access, the impact on his health. Grappling with that reality became part of my grief, and something I was thinking about exploring in a book.”

“I didn’t know then that my mother was going to get a terminal cancer diagnosis. At that point I really didn’t make much progress on the book for a long time, and when I picked it up again, it was going to have to be completely re-imagined.”

While “A Living Remedy” contains much of Chung’s anger at a system in which hardworking people struggle to get the medical care they need, at its heart the book is a grief memoir, wrapped in mother-daughter love. After her mother’s death, cocooned in sorrow, Chung struggled to talk to those who asked how she was doing. “It was still such fresh grief that it was a hard thing to do verbally with people,” Chung said. “I felt there was so much I had to explain, so much backstory. There was no shorthand way to do it.”


The book, however, gave her space to remember her mother, to tell stories about her, “to be curious about some things, to be sentimental about some things … In some ways, it felt like she was keeping me company, and like I was keeping her company. These were memories I didn’t want to lose.”

One poignant detail is the lists Chung includes in the book: of things her mother sent her when she went away to college and things Chung sent her mother in her final illness, when the pandemic kept them apart on opposite coasts. The two lists are far apart in the book, but have a curious, touching similarity (warm socks, beloved movies on DVD, cookies, flowers) as if life has come full circle.

“Just like her, I was looking for a way to keep her close and try to take care of her if I couldn’t be there physically,” Chung said. “She obviously didn’t need me to send more of those things, but I was trying to take care of her, the way she’d always taken care of me.” She liked the parallel quality of those two lists: “the things they show about our relationship, how she parented me, what it’s like being a grown daughter parenting your parents.”  

A final list, late in the book, enumerates what Chung’s mother left her: both physical items — her father’s Cleveland Browns sweatshirt, her grandmother’s glass vases, a needlepoint heart made by Chung in grade school — and those less tangible, including “The hope that I can be half the parent she was.”

Though “A Living Remedy” can be wrenchingly sad, reading it feels like a balm; I relived, in its pages, my own feelings on my father’s death 18 months ago, but with warmth rather than pain. And the book contains some unexpected joy, notably the arrival of Peggy, the pandemic puppy that, Chung wrote, “has given our weary, grieving family another place to put our love.”

Chung, who frequently posts pictures of Peggy (a photogenic golden retriever) on her Twitter account, said they got the dog six months after her mother’s death, at the beginning of the first pandemic winter. “It was just this infusion of joy and chaos in the household,” she said. “My kids were smiling and laughing again for the first time in a long time, and I remember feeling like I could actually feel and access their joy. For so long after my mother died, it was incredibly hard for me to feel even someone else’s happiness. There was a piece of it I couldn’t quite grasp. The dog just crashed through that wall.”

Pondering her next book as she prepares to go on tour with “A Living Remedy,” Chung says she’s learned a few lessons from grief. “It’s made me much more aware of my humanity and my limitations. I’m the kind of person who’s always been very impatient with what I view as my weakness. Grief just kind of broke me down and really forced me to build a different understanding of myself: one that was more tolerant and probably more loving; one that acknowledged that these big, hard feelings aren’t my enemy, they’re evidence of my humanity and the fact that I was loved and have loved these people that I’ve lost.”

“A Living Remedy”

Nicole Chung will speak in conversation with Angela Garbes at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 19 at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; admission is free but registration is requested at