In this episode of The Cut, co-host B.A. Parker unpacks grief with her friend, fellow podcaster, and author of the new memoir Seeing Ghosts, Kat Chow. Chow, who lost her mother at 13, grapples with how experiencing bereavement at a young age still affects her today, while Parker discusses how the recent passing of her grandmother has changed the way she perceives even the smallest of life choices, like the day of the week she vacuums. The pair explore the crucial role loss plays in how they’ve grown as individuals, and the ways you can continue to learn about the important people in your life, even after they’ve died.
To hear more about how Chow used her grief to learn about her family history, and the process of writing her memoir, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also read the full transcript below.
PARKER: The day after my Grams died, a friend sent me a copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which was meant to be this handy-dandy bible for my sadness — which was totally thoughtful, don’t get me wrong. But it was doubling down on sadness that I wasn’t ready to feel in the first place. So now, Joan Didion’s memoir about losing her husband and her daughter has been sitting at the edge of my kitchen table, unread.
And aside from avoiding people’s questions and watching loads of television, I don’t know if even now, after four months, I am equipped with the proper tools to handle loss.
That’s something author and journalist Kat Chow is also working on.
KAT CHOW: I never understood death. My family never talked about grief in a way, but I think I’ve always had this sense that loss has always been a big part of my family.
PARKER: Kat finally confronts the grief that is woven through her family. And then, rewinds it back. Bringing the life in again.
KAT: It’s almost like trying to articulate a dream, something sort of very amorphous that you’ve had. That’s how I feel about trying to describe my family’s loss.
PARKER: Kat spent months writing her memoir about a personal grief, all while global grief surrounded her. It was the summer of 2020 and outside her D.C. window, the death toll from the pandemic continued to rise.
KAT: I had no idea what “normal society” would look like when this pandemic ended — or does it ever end?
PARKER: She noticed that grief was washing over everything, but that that grief was never getting addressed.
KAT: On this concept of Sigmund Freud’s, he makes this distinction between mourning and melancholia. In 1917, Freud wrote this essay and he defined mourning as something that has an end in sight where a person who is mourning has a grief that is attached to a specific person or maybe an object, but melancholia is this ongoing state. It’s this amorphous thing that is almost pathological, where if you’re melancholic, you know you have lost something, but you don’t really know what. I kept thinking about that when we were going through lockdown last year. I think it’s this anxiety that I’ve internalized, where you don’t know what the future will hold. You don’t even know what your loss is going to be, but you know that it’s there.
PARKER: Kat was able to recognize this barely subterranean grief, this prolonged melancholy in the rest of the world, because she grew up seeing it in her family.
KAT: Both my parents are immigrants from Hong Kong and Gwangzhou, China. Like so many other immigrants, they came to the U.S. for education or for other reasons to be closer to family. The things that they gave up were just… I never understood that. That was also what anchored this book to a degree too — wanting to understand how my family experienced loss on so many levels, whether it was loss of country, loss of person, loss of money, or loss of class or status or anything related to that.
I also knew that I was just going to learn some stuff. I was going to learn a lot of shit about my family that I had no idea about, and that was probably going to append many, many preconceived notions that I had about my dad, my mom, my sisters, my uncle, my aunt.
PARKER: Kat interviewed her family about old stories and grievances, questions that she’d always had. Relationships that she wanted to improve. Especially with her father.
Do you feel like you’ve cracked the code of your dad?
KAT: Do I feel like I’ve cracked the code of my dad? Sometimes you have people in your life who will never want to give up parts of themselves and that’s okay. Maybe they don’t know the answer or maybe they just don’t want to share it with you. So many times over [the years] where I’m like, “Do you miss mommy?” or “What do you think about her?” He’d say something like, “She’s been dead for X amount of years,” As a kid, I’d be like, Oh my God. But how do you feel? Like, what are your feelings? And I learned on a personal level to glean meaning from the lack of response. There’s so much to be said in silence.
PARKER: Kat’s personal relationship with loss began with her mother, Florence.
KAT: I was really afraid of losing my parents, and her in particular. I think that’s such a natural thing for little kids, to fear their parents dying. When I was just a kid, I remember this one afternoon sitting on my family room couch with my mom and we were watching TV and she was cracking sunflower seeds with her teeth and she turned to me and she said, “When I die, I want you to get me stuffed so that I can always sit in your apartment and watch over you.” When she told me this, she thought it was so funny. I didn’t know how to react. It was obviously really frightening. She just thought it was the funniest thing ever, and thinking back on that moment, it was so hopeful in her eyes because there’s the assumption that she lives long enough for me to make it to adulthood and to have my own apartment.
PARKER: Then, it happened. When she was 13, Kat lost her mother to cancer, and her father was left to raise her and her two older sisters.
When was the moment when you were a kid that you realized that your parents were people? Because kids never do that.
KAT: Oh, man.
PARKER: I’ve never [did]. I always viewed my parents as mechanisms for survival. Nah, not flesh and blood with thoughts and dreams and stuff.
KAT: Yeah. I know that that occurred when my mom died, where my father, for much of my life, always seemed to be someone in the background. He was present in our lives, my sisters, and my lives. But my mom definitely was the primary caretaker who was so hypervigilant about making sure that we were doing all the things that she thought we should do to be successful. And my dad, I remember distinctly thinking as a child that he was older than dinosaurs, and he was also the smartest man in the world. That’s how I saw him from the time I could think thoughts to until I was 11 or so. Then when my mom died, I understood. Oh, wow. This is a person, a man whose life has been dramatically upended by the death of someone he loved. I think that’s when I understood, this is someone who is a person. I didn’t quite understand the nuances of what composed or made up this person. I understood that this was someone who was also experiencing a lot of friction in his life. But for my mom, I don’t know. I’d love to say that it was earlier because she was such a big part of my life, and she was just so vivacious and mischievous and had this incredible sense of humor that could be quite cruel, but also wickedly funny. I think what I’ve been trying to do with this book is render her as a real person.
PARKER: In Seeing Ghosts, Kat grabs ahold of her loss, by trying to really understand who it is she lost. Because Kat was so young when her mother passed away, she never got to know her the way adults can know their moms. You know, when there’s this illusion of being equals.
So Kat traces her mother’s memories by sorting through old records, receipts and documents, trying to piece together an image of what it was like to first come to America and go to college, meet her husband, and raise three girls.
KAT: Trying to figure out where, where your memories start to shift and in a way, how grief and how loss and a specific person in memory grow with you. They don’t just become this flat thing. They evolve and your relationship to them changes.
PARKER: Kat found that adding new context to old memories of her mom–and trying to make a coherent picture of her grief–was tricky.
KAT: My mother who, when I was a child, of course, I loved her. We also had a hard relationship where she had so many expectations and also so much resentment for my sisters and me for how much she just gave to us. As a kid, I didn’t even know where to begin processing all of that. But as an adult, getting to hear her history and sifting through all of these documents — her checkbook records, the receipts for the baby grand piano that she bought one year, because she just wanted something to show status, even though we couldn’t afford it. It definitely drove our family into debt. All of these little pieces helped me assemble a more clear image of her as imperfect as that is.
PARKER: There’s only so much of a life that can be reconstructed from its pieces. So Kat turned toward imagination. Throughout the book, Kat has moments where she writes directly to her mother, asking her questions and trying to put herself in her mother’s shoes.
KAT: I address my mother as “you.” I wanted to do that because I understood that as an adult, I can’t speak to her directly, but I have so many questions I want to ask of her. So many questions that I could ask, for example, my father, but not ask my mother because she’s no longer with us.
I loved this idea of being in conversation with her to show the longing. I think when you address someone who’s not there, it’s such an intimate act. I wanted to show this arc of memories that are told and mostly past tense until the last section of the book that is back to present tense, to sort of swing the reader into this different mindset of This is someone who is now also internalizing this loss differently and to hopefully signal not that the grief or loss is over or lesser, but there’s a different orientation to it.
PARKER: One part of that accumulating image of her mom that has always been clear, is another, older loss. It’s a loss that shaped Kat’s mother, and in turn, shaped Kat as well.
KAT: Before I was even born, my mother and dad lost their only son, Jonathan, who would have been two years older than me. His death, I felt as a child, was the only reason why I was born. My parents decided to have me, the third kid, because they had this hole that they had to fill. As a child, I understood this or I knew, and I’d hear them talk about Jonathan, we’d go to his grave in the cemetery for Chinese New Year or other holidays, we would burn incense for all of our dead ancestors, including Jonathan and my parents would, they wouldn’t pray exactly, but they would kind of speak to him and in Cantonese and wish him well. I always had this sense of like, What space am I inhabiting? Who am I, and why am I here? Also just watching my parents demonstrate this very restrained grief for their parents or other ancestors, or people they’d lost many, many years ago. It reminded me that grief was always kind of present.
PARKER: After the break, the words, the rituals — you still need them.
PARKER: While reading the book, it was the first time it’s since, since the passing of my dad and my grandmother, that I had viewed them as ancestors.
PARKER: Because there’s this moment where you’re looking at a picture of your mom and it’s a bit of an aside, but you’re like, Now an ancestor. When did you feel like you made that distinction?
KAT: I think it took adulthood. It took until my mid-20s to see my mom as an ancestor. Earlier, even though I’d been feeling grief so closely and loss so closely and intimately, and was always thinking about it, I was still sort of afraid of it.
I’ve always understood that loss is a process and it never leaves you, but I don’t know if when I was 13 or 14 or 15, even 21, I really thought of my mom as this dynamic person, even after her passing. I suppose calling her an ancestor helps me think of her as someone who I can still access or think about with more depth. For various holidays that my family celebrates, I can burn incense for her and still in a way provide for her by burning tissue, paper, clothes, or money or, or something like that.
I think it was sometime in my mid 20s when I started partaking in these traditions myself and feeling less sheepish about doing it and owning it a little bit more as my own. You’ve come to these parties before.
PARKER: Parties like Lunar New Year celebrations at her house.
I still have pictures of that meal on my phone, but I distinctly remember, in your backyard, burning the tissue paper clothes and the Joss money?
KAT: Joss money and then burning the incense too.
PARKER: Yeah. And that being like in remembrance, like you’re giving something to the ancestors.
KAT: Yeah. In honor of my mom, but also just anybody who is no longer with us, too. And yeah, I think that question about “ancestor” and the use of that word is so interesting because I’m not sure it was even that intentional of a distinction, but in retrospect, I see it as something that was quite spiritual.
I think a result of just being a little bit more mature and also being okay with really acknowledging that for me, at least when I lose someone, when someone passes, you’re always reassessing your relationship to them throughout every single life stage. Like, I’m thinking about having kids now and I’m thinking about what it means to be a mother and thinking about what my mother would have told me about it. Your relationship always alters.
PARKER: [In the book] You say this thing about your mother’s passing. You’re like, I hate her death for how it knocked my family down, but I hate how I believe I needed it to become who I am. Was through the process of writing this book something that you slowly realized?
KAT: I think I’ve always felt after my mom’s passing that her death made me harder. It made me tougher. It made me the person who I am today. It made me scrappier, so independent, and that line was really hard to write because I think I felt, and to an extent now, feel a little bit of shame for it.
It’s hard because no one ever wants to say Yeah, this death, I benefited from it. I don’t think I benefited from it in this positive way, but getting through a loss, you have to just dig so, so, so deeply within yourself to get through it. As a teenager, losing a formative figure, like your mother, as a 13 year old, you have to figure out how to parent yourself in so many ways.
PARKER: I’m figuring out who I am post my grandmother, as an adult. And I’m remembering those life skills that she taught me.
KAT: Right. When, when you lose someone so formative to you in a way you have to figure out how to absorb their best qualities that you needed and be that for yourself or other people.
PARKER: Definitely. Like, I recently vacuumed on a Sunday, like the Holy Day, and I knew my grandmother would’ve been mad at me.
It’s impossible to wrap one’s head around loss. It’s an empty chair. A fuzzy memory from a photograph. A holiday tradition to at least keep their spirit alive. But it’s always evolving no matter how much, or how little, time has passed. And what Kat’s book taught me, was that the real lesson of it all, is one of resilience.
KAT: So I grew up in Connecticut, which had Hartford, the insurance capital of the world. My mom worked at the Travelers building, which famously in the mid 90s, had a bunch of Peregrine falcons roosting on its tower in Hartford. It was such a big deal. I remember my mom talking about it, newspapers were covering it. It was huge because they were having chicks and these animals were these beautiful birds were thought to really not make it. It was so fascinating to me, just thinking about this imagery of these beautifully wild and strong and ferocious birds, and them existing upon this metal and glass and these gleaming skyscrapers, and how much work it took to get them to survive and thinking about my family in this context of their, our ability to, resist our surroundings at all costs while also becoming a part of it, too. I think that’s a dynamic that a lot of people in America can relate to.