KoreAm Archive: One Mother’s Journey Toward Healing After Death of Her Youngest

Photos Courtesy of Brenda Paik Sunoo
Author Brenda Paik Sunoo (pictured here engaging children on the roadside in Hoi An, Central Vietnam, where she currently resides) penned her memoirs following the death of her son Tommy, in the hope that her experience could offer others hope and encourage open discussion about the still taboo subjects of death and dying.

KoreAm excavated this article from our July 2006 issue. The story, and accompanying excerpt, came to mind, while reflecting on the incredible loss of life, especially of high school students, as a result of the South Korean ferry sinking. Brenda Paik Sunoo, a journalist, author and mother, penned her memoir, Seaweed and Shamans, after her youngest child died without warning in 1994. As an overture of compassion to readers, both those following the ferry tragedy and those who may have also faced some loss, we republish the story here. Sunoo told KoreAmrecently that “healing begins by grieving and by reaching out to others with compassion.” —Ed.

The Gifts of Grief

In her book Seaweed and Shamans: Inheriting the Gifts of Grief, Brenda Paik Sunoo shares her journey toward healing after the sudden death of her youngest son.


If your child suddenly died, what would you do? How would you cope? How would you go on living? Could you ever heal from the loss? These are questions most parents shudder even to contemplate, perhaps out of fear the very thought could tempt fate. Brenda Paik Sunoo does not have to imagine it.

In 1994, her youngest of two sons, Tommy Sunoo, collapsed on the basketball court at school, and could not be revived. He was 16, with no known history of health problems. The coroner concluded he died of congestive heart failure due to chronic asthmatic bronchitis.


Four years after Tommy’s death, Sunoo began to pen her memoirs, distilling her journey through incredible grief. Seaweed and Shamans: Inheriting the Gifts of Grief (Seoul Selection, 2006) is a collection of essays that don’t just focus on the anguish, however. As the title suggests, the bookexplores the unexpected “gifts” that Sunoo, a third-generation Korean American, received as she moved toward healing. They include a close-call in her car that awakens the grieving author’s will to live; a pot of compassion-filled miyeokguk (Korean seaweed soup) from another mother dealing with a different kind of loss; a tattoo that immortalizes her son’s artwork and friendship; and her own son’s diary, which reveals his inner world and documents his final days. Several of Tommy’s journal entries, quotes and illustrations are also included in the book.

A freelance journalist who formerly worked as an editor at the Korea Times Weekly in Los Angeles, Sunoo says she was prompted to write the book because of the frequent comment she would receive when people learned of her loss: “I can’t imagine what I would do if it were me.” The author, who provides online grief counseling to others now, thought that sharing her experience could be of some public value, especially because many people still consider death a taboo subject.

The book does not provide a road map to recovery for the bereaved. As Sunoo’s mentor advised her while she was penning the memoir: “We just want to know what it’s been like for you.”

Her touching descriptions of her final moments with Tommy and the dreams she often still has of him will likely evoke tears, but the feeling you come away with after reading Seaweed and Shamans is hopeful. Indeed, there are even moments that will make you laugh. One chapter is dedicated to people’s “stupid” attempts at condolences and the glib responses (in italics) Sunoo wished she could have given:

“Thank goodness you have other children.”

“Yeah, one less dish to wash.”

“Did I tell you that Willie made it into Harvard?”

“Did I tell you that my Tommy is buried at Forest Lawn?”

Several months before he died, Tommy—in an act perhaps not uncommon for teens his age—wrote a farewell letter to a female friend whom he considered a soul mate. In it, he asks his friend to make sure he, a self-identified artist, gets buried with a pencil and urges her to write a letter to him to help her cope with his death. “It’s good to write down your feelings, y’know,” he writes.

Tommy’s mother would also heed the wise advice. Because none of us will escape unscathed by the loss of someone we love, Sunoo’s story is a universally meaningful one. It is her gift—perhaps Tommy’s, too—to us.



Art in Private Places

Gift of Art: An excerpt from Seaweed and Shamans by Brenda Paik Sunoo

Like most teenagers, Tommy loved to keep secrets from his parents. I suppose it was his way of maintaining control over his life. And ours. We knew his friends in Los Angeles. We were just beginning to meet his new friends in Irvine. Whenever they came to our home, they’d head straight to Tommy’s bedroom. One could bypass the front door and enter his room through the sliding glass doors overlooking our green-ferned courtyard.

But as soon as they wanted to raid the refrigerator, I could hear Tommy holler. “Ma, I’m home with the guys. Are you dressed?” God forbid, they should catch me leaping from room to room in my elastic-worn panties and thin cotton T-shirt—my favorite knock-around outfit.

“Coast is clear!” I would assure him.

In time, I was able to match the names and faces of two of his new friends: Anthony Wong and Andy Lin. They were the same two boys who sat in the waiting room at Irvine Medical Center the day that Tommy died. Mrs. Wong, Anthony’s mother, had accommodated their pleas to drive them to the hospital. I still remember facing the three of them—sitting in a row—courting fear in their yielding eyes. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but the doctors couldn’t revive him. Tommy’s gone.”


Several hours later, his death made the evening news. Our family watched a TV news clip about Tommy’s death. There he was, our son in living color. His somewhat dorky high school photo had been plastered next to Hank Gathers—the African American basketball player who died of heart failure at age 23—four years earlier, also on a basketball court. The TV caption read: “Another Athlete Has Fallen.” Upon seeing the newscast, [our eldest son] David’s eyes widened in shock.

“Wow, Tommy’s on Channel 9!”

Five days later, the local media attended Tommy’s funeral. The TV reporter interviewed Anthony on camera. Furious at the media for sensationalizing Tommy’s death, he set the record straight. With anguish—and anger—he blasted into the camera, “Tommy wasn’t a jock! He was an artist!” And he was right. Tommy even hated to change into his P.E. shorts.

From that moment on, Tommy’s new friends had endeared themselves to me. We kept in contact by phone and e-mail. But I had no idea how their loss would mirror mine. It would take several years before I would learn how the death of my youngest son had transformed the lives of his peers.

It happened over Christmas—1998 or thereabouts. [My husband] Jan and I were shopping for books at Borders in Costa Mesa. Jan was browsing the sports section for an instruction manual on golf. I needed to use the restroom, so I walked in that direction. All of a sudden, I heard someone call out my name next to the pay phone. “Mrs. Sunoo. It’s me, Steve.”

It was Steve Bagatourian, one of Tommy’s fellow artists and also a close friend of Anthony’s. Upon seeing me, he suggested that he, Anthony, Andy and his brother Abe visit our home during theholidays. We invited them over for dinner and were touched that, perhaps, we were starting a new tradition. When they arrived, they couldn’t wait to present their special gifts to us. The excitement in Steve’s voice as he explained each measured stroke evoked more pleasure than the drawings themselves.

“See what he’s doing here? Tommy’s trying to do perspectives like Frank Miller in ‘The Dark Knight Returns.’”

As Steve “translated” each line and composition of Tommy’s work, he guided us into the realm of our son’s imagination. The world of Batman, Wolverine and X-Men.

Anthony and Andy waited their turn to present their own surprises. There were two. The boys were part of a band called the Ex-Presidents. They used one of Tommy’s illustrations of a Transformer for the cover of their self-made CD. They also mentioned his name in the credits.

“That’s sweet, you guys.”

As the evening progressed, we ended up in Tommy’s bedroom — their former “clubhouse.” The boys wanted to revisit the animated drawings Tommy depicted on yellow Post-It™ pads. He stored them in a white shoebox in his closet. They remembered.

We didn’t get through the whole box, though. Out of nowhere, Anthony turned to us and said, “Mr. and Mrs. Sunoo, I wanted to keep this next surprise until now. Surprise! Merry Christmas!”

He lifted his blue plaid shirt so we could see the elastic top of his designer briefs. Emblazoned across his waistband was the name “Tommy.”

“Cool! I love Tommy Hilfilger,” I said. “In fact, I’ve been tempted more than once to buy a T-shirt that says, ‘Tommy Girl.’”

“Mrs. Sunoo, look closer. Not just at the pants,” he continued.

“Wait a minute. Let me get my glasses.”

There, below and to the right of his belly button, was a 3-inch reproduction of one of Tommy’s sketches: a young man wearing a trench coat and smoking a cigarette. His neck scarf blowing in the wind. That particular drawing had always reminded me of a black-and-white movie poster I’ve seen of James Dean—the one in which he’s strolling the streets of Manhattan. Privately, I used to think of Tommy as an Asian James Dean. A sexy “Rebel without a Cause.”

“Anthony, you’ve immortalized Tommy’s art,” I squealed. “When did you do that?”

He told us that whenever he tried to put his feelings about Tommy’s death into words, it never came out right. By tattooing one of Tommy’s drawings on his body, he could express himself more accurately.

“Tommy’s death was the single most important event in my life. It was my coming of age,” he said. After high school, Anthony went away to college at the University of California, Berkeley. His biology classes, I suppose, best explain his organic metaphor.

“I was a larva at first. I had my own little world because I was little. I didn’t know much of anything except for my little branches and little leaves,” he said. “After Tommy passed away, I became a kind of pupa—enclosed and introspective.”

He started to think about tattooing a piece of Tommy’s artwork at age 18. During his pupa stage. Anthony wanted to demonstrate his ease with all the transitional youth-to-adult complexities.

“But I didn’t want to be rash about it, either.”

It took him two years—from the time he envisioned the tattoo—to actually get it. On his 20th birthday, he finally went to a tattoo parlor on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood with Andy and another friend.

“It hurt,” he said. “But if you look carefully, you’ll notice that the sketch is mysterious in several ways.

“It looks as though something is on his mind. What’s he thinking about? What’s in his pocket? Where is he? Is he sad, mad or glad?”

Anthony said he chose that particular sketch because it mirrored his moody relationship with Tommy.

“Sometimes, I’m the guy in the tattoo. You wonder about me. I just might surprise you. Or it signifies something about me—the bumps in my road or how I’ve changed over the years. Other times, it’s really Tommy.”

He told us that he often reaches down and holds his tattoo when things are going bad. “It’s like talking to God through Tommy, or talking straight to Tommy himself. I touch it for advice. What should I do? What do you think, Tommy?”

Very few people have seen Anthony’s tattoo. Some have caught a glimpse of it when his shirt flapped in the breeze. Only a select group of friends have been invited to his private art gallery.

“It’s my most prized possession, and I’m a scrooge about sharing it with anybody.”

To deny his tattoo, he says, would be tantamount to denying his identity, his personal journey since Tommy’s death. From pupa to man.

The Friendship Bench was erected in Tommy’s memory at University High in Irvine, Calif., where the teen attended school.


Seaweed and Shamans: Inheriting the Gifts of Grief is available in English- and Korean-language versions, at www.seoulselection.com, and via Amazon.com as a book and Kindle version. Sunoo is also a bereavement specialist with ShareGrief.com.

This article was published in the July 2006 issue of KoreAm.