How the anniversary of a K-pop star's suicide reminds me to practice emotional honesty, for myself and for my relationships
One year after K-pop star Kim Jong-hyun’s death (known by his stage name, Jonghyun), an HG contributor reflects on the artist’s impact and what she’s learned about mental health.
My grief often lingers in my body like a kiss lingers on the cheek. For some, grief comes crashing down in paralyzing waves. For others, it settles quietly into the heart and makes a permanent home. However a person experiences grief, K-pop fans around the world certainly felt it on December 18th last year. On that day, Jonghyun—a beloved K-pop star and member of famous boy group SHINee—was found unresponsive in his Seoul apartment following an apparent suicide. His heartbreaking final letter, one that he entrusted to a close friend, was revealed on social media not long after. It detailed his battle with depression, and the amount of hardship and judgment he faced while struggling with his mental health.
Jonghyun was known internationally not only as a vocal powerhouse in the boy group SHINee (pronounced “shiny”), but also as somewhat of a champion for open discussions about mental health—a rare thing for a Korean celebrity to be vocal about in a decidedly conservative country. He hosted a radio show called “Blue Night,” where he often spoke candidly about his fluctuating emotional state, empathized with his listeners’ personal stories, and shared comforting advice. His unique and powerful voice made him one of the most admired vocalists in Korean pop, and the duality of his personality—lively and playful one moment, pensive and emotional the next—allowed Jonghyun to capture the hearts of fans all across the globe.
As the anniversary of his death passes, I find myself reflecting on my own mental health, and wondering if I’ve done enough to check up on the people around me.
December can be an overwhelming month, and an extremely lonely one, too. It’s easy to find myself slipping into a rabbit hole of obsessive thoughts as the days get shorter and the weather gets colder. Many look forward to the holidays, but you experience that distinct feeling of alienation when you can’t get as excited for the season as you think you should be. Jonghyun would often remind his fans to embrace every aspect of themselves and their emotions.
He was absolutely right to encourage us not to feel shame or guilt in our emotions, whatever they may be. I’m trying to practice that—not only for myself, but for my loved ones as well.
Jonghyun serves as a constant reminder for me to embrace emotional honesty, and to allow my friends and family to have that same freedom—which I think is the highest form of love.
Too often, we tend to minimize the feelings of people close to us, usually in an unconscious manner, because we can’t bear to see them sad. We give out lukewarm platitudes like “Tomorrow is another day” or “I’m sure everything will be fine.” While it’s always a lovely sentiment to stay positive, sometimes what is really needed is an understanding ear and a shoulder to lean on. I’ve told myself that the next time I need to console a loved one, instead of opening my mouth, I should just extend a hand instead.
As a singer, music composer, author, and radio producer all before the age of 30, I don’t think anyone can doubt how hard Jonghyun worked. His career has inspired countless other artists, as well as everyday people. Although I don’t have the tools to build a physical memorial in his name, I’d like to think that we can all help to honor his legacy by working hard at emotional honesty in our relationships, and remembering to be kind to ourselves and each other.
We are more than the crimes we think we’ve done. When we take the extra step to not only access our individual pain, but identify and understand the pain of those around us, it powers empathy within us. As we learn to be more kind and understanding to others, we are able to give those same things back to ourselves. The grief fades, the healing begins, and we can all shine—just how Jonghyun would want us to.
If you or someone you care about is struggling and experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone who can help. You can also chat with a counselor online here. All services are free and available 24/7. Additionally, here are ways you can help loved ones struggling with depression.