Mourning a singer across language barrier and oceans

A student reflects on the suicide of their favorite band member of SHINee, a Korean group.


On Dec. 18, 2017, I woke up expecting the day to be like every other Monday. I checked my text messages, like usual, but when I looked in my group chat I knew something was very wrong.

Only two of my friends were awake at the time, but they were both filled with panic — they had read in the news that something had happened to Kim Jonghyun, a member of the Korean pop, also known as K-pop, group SHINee.

My heart immediately sank to my stomach, and my mind jumped to the worst-case scenario. But I hoped I was wrong. Twitter was in a flurry of sadness as fans discovered he was being transported to the hospital for attempting suicide.

There was so much misinformation going around, with some fans believing he was still alive, and Jonghyun’s friends and colleagues deleting condolences they had posted. Everyone was confused — and clinging onto hope.

All the hope I had was lost the moment his agency, SM Entertainment, released its statement confirming his death that same day.

I was glad the rest of my family had already left for the day so they wouldn’t hear my crying.

“This is actually happening,” I thought to myself.

I wanted to stay home and cry, but I knew I had to wipe my tears, lace my boots and head to campus.

Some may ask, “How could you possibly mourn someone you’ve never met? How can you cry for someone whose language you couldn’t even understand?”

Although my friends now know me to be a die-hard fan of BTS, a seven-member K-pop boy band, I became a fan of Korean pop music back in 2009. I had attended a show on the Jonas Brothers’ Lines, Vines, and Trying Times Tour, not knowing the opening act was going to be a Korean girl band called Wonder Girls.

I disconnected from Wonder Girls for a bit as their United States promotions fizzled out, and I didn’t hear much about them. But, during my sophomore year of high school, Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” which mocked the wealthy lifestyle of the Gangnam neighborhood in the Korean capital of Seoul, exploded on airwaves around the world. I thought to look into K-pop again. I was disappointed that Wonder Girls were on hiatus at the time, but I got into groups like Red Velvet, f(x) and EXO.

When I found the group SHINee, I immediately fell in love with them. The eccentric fashion and choreography in the music video for “Dream Girl,” a colorful video with an electro-funk vibe, awed me, and when Jonghyun was on the screen, he was my favorite.

The lyrics being in a different language has never hindered me from loving SHINee or recognizing the group’s talent. Many Korean fans even translate lyrics, interviews and social media posts so fans from across the globe can stay updated.

SHINee goes above and beyond with its work as the band members sing passionately while performing complex, synchronized choreography. They helped write and produce all of their albums, which never stuck to one genre. Unlike some groups who only see each other as colleagues, the members of SHINee view each other as brothers, and they extend that familial love to their fanbase.

There’s so much music outside the bubble of the U.S., and I’m thankful that artists like SHINee gave me the opportunity to learn about a culture other than my own. I had the chance to support Jonghyun, who never failed to bring a smile to my face.

Despite his high-profile status, Jonghyun was someone who was open-minded, whimsical and wasn’t afraid to be bold. He never hid his struggles with depression and was honest with the world. He owned up to his mistakes whenever he may have offended someone and always wanted to do better. He reminded us that we shouldn’t bottle up how we feel.

As I mourned, I didn’t know how to stop crying. Every time I thought I calmed down, news of his death would bombard me on social media. I couldn’t escape it.

Strangely enough, it was his music that comforted me. It was difficult to listen at first, as he was a lead vocal for SHINee, but I forced myself to do it. I was one of many who streamed his solo albums that day, just wanting to hear his voice again.

I listened through his entire discography, although his album Story Op. 2 was on repeat. Hearing his gentle voice croon “You did a good job today, you worked so hard” in his song “End of A Day” gave pause to my mourning.

It saddens me that I’ll never see him perform live. SHINee is continuing to promote itself with the four remaining members, and I’ll continue to support the band, but I can’t see myself in a crowd of fans waving the pearl aqua lightsticks and screaming chants as I look to the stage and see a space where Jonghyun could be.

For me, Jonghyun was a light in dark times, and I’m grateful he shared his gift with fans. His music will continue to impact so many even though he is no longer with us.

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