By Elizabeth de Luna
In the early evening hours of a Saturday in June, 400 people gathered in silence under an open tent at KCON New York, a convention celebrating the growing global influence of Korean pop culture. At the front of the room, moderator Cortney Marbury cleared her throat. “Before we begin this panel on mental health in K-pop,” she said. “I want to take the first 15 minutes to open up the floor to anyone who wants to share their memories of Jonghyun and SHINee.” A heavy quiet hung over the room until one young woman crept up to the microphone. “SHINee was the first band I ever loved,” she said. “They got me through some really dark moments. I would even say they saved my life.” Heads in the audience nodded in agreement. “So when I saw on Twitter that Jonghyun…” she paused, breathed deeply, and continued, “had killed himself, I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t…” Her voice broke. “It’s been six months and I still think about him every day. No one in my life understands what I’m feeling. Why didn’t we see that he was struggling? What do we do now?”
Over the next two hours, more than 30 fans of influential Korean group SHINee, called “Shawols,” would approach the mic to share similar feelings of grief, confusion, and guilt. Their stories transformed a panel about mental and emotional health into a forum of collective mourning for the death of singer Kim Jonghyun, who died last December at the age of 27. This public outpouring was “completely unexpected but obviously needed,” Marbury said. “It was healing to be vulnerable in a safe space with like-minded people.”
The members of SHINee, from left to right: Onew, Taemin, Jonghyun, Minho, and Key.
Being a K-pop fan outside of Korea can be physically isolating. To support an industry a world away, international Shawols must actively participate in a global digital community, performing almost all of their fan activities — from making friends to waiting patiently for lyric translations — online. Most international Shawols found out about Jonghyun’s death through a personal text, group chat, or tweet. They waited for news to cross time zones, breathlessly refreshing web pages for updates and typing furiously to their friends in other countries looking to make sense of the tragedy.
The recent deaths of American rappers Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, and Mac Miller were heavily covered across Western media, but Shawols didn’t experience the same public mourning. Many expressed that they were unable to properly communicate their pain to family or friends and, without anyone in their life to talk to, buried their sorrow as a means of coping. Kimmie, a Shawol from Georgia, noted that “many fans suppressed their grief because they felt that no one around them understood what they were going through.” It’s no wonder, then, that so many Shawols were openly overwhelmed by emotion at KCON. For the first time, they felt understood.
As a musician, Jonghyun was singular in his ability to write and produce songs for himself, SHINee, and some of K-pop’s biggest artists. As a person, fans describe him as witty, full of life, and compassionate, especially when it came to the struggles of others. Although homosexuality is criminalized in Korea, Jonghyun publicly supported the country’s LGBTQ community. He also was open about his own depressive thoughts in a culture that claims the world’s highest suicide rate among 10-19 year olds. On his nightly radio show “Blue Night,” Jonghyun answered questions from listeners in an attempt to help “set their hearts at rest.” Fans say these displays of empathy made his suicide especially painful. “He was so open with his own struggles,” said What The K-pop’s Amy Leigh, “that when he died, we felt that we lost a champion for ourselves, someone who really understood us.”
The mourning altar outside of a hospital in Seoul in December 2017.
One year later, Shawols are still fighting to support friends continents away, many of whom continue to carry their burden of grief through their daily lives. On Monday evening, Leigh hosted an online memorial broadcast on What The K-pop’s radio station to mark the one-year anniversary of Jonghyun’s passing. It served as a digital memorial service for Shawols who could not make one of more than 40 vigils held across 15 countries and 13 U.S. states throughout the month of December. To understand how the fandom is moving forward, MTV News spoke to six Shawols about how they’ve found strength in one another, online and off, in the year since the idol’s passing.
Warning: detailed descriptions of self-harm, depression, and anxiety.
I never felt truly understood as a person until I found SHINee and was able to explore and express myself while connecting with other K-pop fans through my YouTube channel. I was not planning to post a video about how heartbroken I was about Jonghyun’s passing until I realized that, regardless of distance or language, pain and joy are universal emotions and mental health is a universal struggle. Being vulnerable about those things is a superpower.
Madeline with her poster from Jonghyun’s first compilation album, The Collection: Story Op. 1.
As international fans, many of us don’t have immediate support or understanding from those around us. I wanted to make a safe space within my corner of the internet to let people know they’re not alone and encourage them to grieve freely. To hear someone say “I feel this way, too,” changes things. So I said, You know what, screw it! I am crying in my room and I am just going to record myself speaking from the heart about what I am going through. I didn’t expect 54,000 people to watch it or 700 of them to comment. People were leaving messages of support, just trying to take care of each other. I think that, in turn, was a way for them to take care of themselves.
In Jonghyun’s case, I think he wanted people to acknowledge the broken parts of him. With that in mind, I ask people how they are a lot more often and give people a lot more space to express themselves. Jonghyun was able to give unconditional love to his members and his fans. That’s something that I always want to emulate through my channel and beyond. It makes me upset to think he thought he didn’t live a life that was impactful. His passing made me realize that everyone leaves a legacy when they die, so it’s OK to give yourself more credit than you think. Regardless of what you achieve, you’re somebody’s child, somebody’s friend. You create a ripple effect.
The day was beautiful and sunny after a recent snowfall. I was in a very good mood and had just made myself some tea when my sister texted me and asked, “Did you hear about Jonghyun?” I dropped everything and went to the internet. I remember reading that he had been found unconscious and kept refreshing the news, hoping that maybe he’d made it to the hospital in time. Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, everything was exploding with rumors but I refused to believe any of them until there was an official statement from someone I could trust. Then, there was an official statement. On Tumblr, some Shawols were harming themselves, and that scared me. I have quite a few Shawol friends around the world, and I messaged every single one of them and said “Whatever it is you’re thinking of doing, don’t. He made his own decision. You cannot do this to yourself.” Thankfully for me, every single one of them replied.
Other fandoms offered their condolences, but one really surprised me. I saw it on Tumblr. The lead vocalist of the group Linkin Park had also committed suicide earlier that year and their fans reached out to Shawols publicly and said, “We know what you’re going through. It’s going to be really hard and we know how painful it is, we’re sending you love and strength.” I was very touched, because our fandoms are so distant. It proved to me that language has no boundaries.
For me, SHINee is love. That’s what they mean to me, and I take a lot of strength from them. They make me want to be a better person, to be a good reflection of a Shawol. Being part of a fandom is almost like being part of a family. You all go through the same emotions together — pride and happiness in the good times, sadness and anxiety in the worst — in very large numbers, all over the world. That’s why, when I saw the thousands of messages from Shawols at Jonghyun’s memorial in Seoul, I said, “This is where our strength is.” The love we wanted to share with each other was immense; it united us.
The temporary memorial for Jonghyun in Seoul. Over three months, fans gathered in the space to leave thousands of messages and mementos for the late singer.
Jonghyun’s death made me realize that, as long as you’re breathing, as long as you can get the fuck up and do something, you just have to do it. There are so many people who care about you, there are so many things you have to experience, so many things you have to do, that you can do. I look at the world so differently now. It’s never an option to give up.
In 2012, my friend Jasmine and I started a YouTube channel called 2MinJinkJongKey, which is a portmanteau of the names of SHINee’s five members. Our first video was concert footage of SHINee singing “Stand By Me” at Madison Square Garden, and we’ve continued to post SHINee-themed content ever since.
After Jonghyun passed, I asked KCON if I could host a panel that would honor his memory and give attendees information about mental health. I was super nervous because I didn’t know how people were going to react to a panel like that. He didn’t die in a car accident; he killed himself. That hits in a totally different way. But as soon as we allowed the audience to share their memories, we saw how badly Shawols needed a safe space to talk. It was hard for some people to share, but it seemed like they could breathe freely again after speaking their truth. Losing Jonghyun was tragic but it’s a tragedy we can learn from. If we can save someone by talking about his suicide, that’s what’s most important.
I, myself, have experienced the same kinds of thoughts that Jonghyun did. In early 2017, I was in a really bad mental place. I planned to attend two of SHINee’s U.S. tour dates and then commit suicide, but something in me changed after seeing them in concert with other Shawols. There is no greater feeling than looking around a room of thousands of people and knowing you’re all there because of your love for the same thing. SHINee and Shawols reignited my fire; I decided I wanted to live.
This handout was produced by the organizer of a local memorial Cortney attended in Atlanta, days after Jonghyun’s death. The back includes emotional health resources.
SHINee saved my life, and they continue to set an example for me and other Shawols as we heal. Their strength and vulnerability in the months after Jonghyun’s death helped us pick ourselves up and continue on as a fandom. In that way, they truly fulfilled the meaning of their name, “one who receives the light.” I will always be grateful to them for sharing their light with us.
In 2011, my first boyfriend cheated on me, and I remember thinking that no one would ever love me again. In that lonely time, I found SHINee and their music. They gave me a new community of online friends from all over the world. I was happy and had a reason to live again. I became an admin for SHINee fan pages and groups on Facebook, and sometimes stayed up chatting with other Shawols until five in the morning. To this day, Shawols are some of the best people I know. I found a new family in them.
I saw the news that Jonghyun had killed himself on Facebook and remember praying that it was a cruel joke. I stared at the screen for the longest time before I managed to click the link to the news report. The rest of the day is a blur. It felt weird to be so sad about someone I didn’t know in real life; it felt like a member of my family had died, like a part of my life and hope was gone. I don’t have any friends in real life that like SHINee or K-pop, so I went online to Facebook and YouTube. Shawols were there for each other, even from across the world. Everyone felt the same pain and most of us didn’t have people in our lives who could understand why we were heartbroken. I had been feeling depressed for a while before Jonghyun died, but I lost my strength to fight that day.
Josephine’s tattoo matches one Jonghyun got to honor his second studio album, Poet|Artist, which was released posthumously on January 23, 2018.
Just last week, I reached out for professional help and will have my first meeting on the one year anniversary of his death. I don’t know if that’s a positive sign or a cruel joke from the universe. I got his neck tattoo on my own neck as a tribute to him. It feels like I have a piece of him with me and gives me strength to not give up. I know Jonghyun didn’t want to die. He wanted the pain to go away and didn’t get the help he needed. I am getting that help and will fight every day to get better, to keep living for him and the other members of SHINee, and to make them proud.
Around this time last year, I was going through a hard time with my mental health. A verbally abusive relationship had put me in bad depressive state, and I had distanced myself from the things that made me happy. The morning Jonghyun died, I was on the train to work in D.C. and saw a message about his hospitalization in a Twitter group chat. Rumors on Twitter spread so fast these days, so I scrolled through my timeline to see if what I was hearing was true. I didn’t see official news, just tweets saying “I’m so sorry to Shawols.” I hopped on Instagram and saw YouTubers and Korean celebrities posting messages about his passing. It was then that I realized I was crying and that everyone on the train was staring at me.
After that day, I pushed his death out of my mind until forcing myself to process it, for the sake of my mental health, several weeks later. I became a Shawol after watching Cortney and Jasmine’s SHINee reaction videos on their YouTube channel 2MinJinkJongKey, so it felt right to me to view their video about Jonghyun’s passing. Watching them talk about it was the closest I had come to speaking to another person about my grief.
I tried to participate in a group chat where Shawols spoke openly about their mental health. There had been a outbreak of people wanting to kill themselves in the community, so I was trying to be there for others. In the end, though, I was still not in a safe mental place and had to leave those chats, too. There’s only so much you can express in a digital forum like that. It was only when my Shawol friend Madeline gave me a call that I physically spoke with someone about how I was feeling and began to heal.
A supportive group chat message from a Shawol.
To this day, I haven’t shared what I went through with my parents. I’m thankful that I had Shawols to support me instead.
I am a bit older than most K-pop fans. I’m married and have three children who love the genre. That shared interest has brought us closer. Before discovering SHINee, I had been in a depressive rut for a long time. Suddenly, I was happy again and making lasting friendships with other Shawols, in addition to connecting with my kids.
Kimmie’s family dog, Jamong. “Jamong” means “grapefruit” or “short-legged person” and was a nickname given to Jonghyun by SHINee members Onew and Key.
I especially identified with Jonghyun. When you have depression, you can recognize depression. I listened to his nightly radio show “Blue Night” every single day for three years. He felt like a brother, like a friend; it’s a connection that’s difficult to explain. When he died, I went through a period of shock. When somebody brings that much light into your life, especially after such a dark period, you don’t know what to do when they are gone. My work suffered, and I ended up seeking therapy and was diagnosed with PTSD. I have been very open about my grief — it’s OK to feel those things when someone you care about passes away. I was lucky that my family understood. My kids and I spoke about how it affected us, and my husband brought me Kimchi stew in one hand and a box of Kleenex in the other when I was in the depths of my emotions.
It hit many of my Shawol friends hard, too. I stayed active on social media to be there for others in the community and was worried when some of them disappeared for a while. The cruel irony of online friendships in that you form relationships with people around the world but have no way of getting in touch with them if they don’t respond to your messages. Luckily for me, they did eventually write me back.
Kimmie’s tattoo (which reads, “You did well, Jonghyun”) is a phrase commonly used by Shawols in messages of mourning. It’s said in response to a line from Jonghyun’s suicide note: “Just tell me I’ve done well.”
During that time, SHINee served as the main source of strength for us to move forward. In February, I attended the group’s concerts at Tokyo Dome. I had never been out of the country before, but I felt the need to be there. Those shows allowed us to process the tragedy as a community. It was the saddest event I have ever been to, but it was comforting to be with other people who were feeling the same way. When I inevitably began to cry, a sweet little Japanese Shawol standing next to me put his hand on my shoulder and asked, in his best English, “Are you OK?” Later, when he was crying, I gave him my tissues. These are the kinds of beautiful people that SHINee and Jonghyun brought into my life.
Though we miss him, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have loved him.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, there are ways to get help. Find resources at www.halfofus.com or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK for a confidential conversation.