Culture

"I never learned how to turn this exhausting pain into bliss": The silent struggles of Kim Jonghyun

by Fiona Teh // December 20, 2017, 11:27 am

Jonghyun's death

On late Monday afternoon, the lead singer of popular Korean boy band SHINee, Kim Jonghyun, 27, was found dead in his rental apartment in an upmarket corner of Seoul.

From the time he sent his final farewell to his sister to the moment the police broke in to discover him unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning – it all unraveled in less than two hours.

By dinnertime, the K-pop fandom was shaken by the unbelievable news that one of their beloved idols, with his perfect smile and hair, and lovable personality to boot – had very likely taken his own life.

SHINee was due to celebrate their 10th year anniversary since their debut, and Jonghyun had been preparing to release solo music in the new year.

As I read the translated last words of a stranger – a heartbreaking letter given to a close friend some time before he’d actually acted on his suicidal thoughts – my heart ached; it stirred and birthed a strange sense of loss in me – strange because I didn’t know who he was.

“I am damaged from the inside. The depression that has been slowly eating away at me has completely swallowed me, and I couldn’t win over it … I wanted someone to notice, but no one noticed … Things you can overcome don’t scar you for life … It’s a miracle I lasted this far … I never learned how to turn this exhausting pain into bliss.” (Jonghyun’s letter)

My sense of loss grew as I paused to think about those who are fighting the same battles that Jonghyun did.

It could be anyone I know – any other smiling, happy face on Instagram. The private battles against depressive feelings, an overwhelming sense of inferiority, exhausting pain and a sense that one’s failings are final – are far from exclusive to international pop-stars.

And in the face of suffering and pain that is as real as darkness, how do we find the right words to say that would cut through the thickness of anguish? And how do we heal an illness if we don’t quite understand it ourselves?

But even as we sometimes rage against the futility of words and our inability to rescue those in misery, we must fight the real enemy: The lie that there is no way out.

We’ll never know if the next person we speak to is going through a similar, unspoken battle.

In light of the fragile times we live in, kindness is a risk we should always take – so we can make it easier for someone to believe that they are loved.

“Everyone in the world is loved by at least one person.” It’s one of those random “facts of life” that float around on the Internet, and I was gripped by it when I saw it, because at that point I had been looking for any evidence to suggest that I was indeed loved.

I felt a deep need for that “fact” to be true. It felt as though I had been wrapped with layers of insulating material that was preventing me from being able to feel love at all. Like the nerve ending that was meant to feel love had died a long time ago.

Kindness is a risk we should always take – so we can make it easier for someone to believe that they are loved.

Someone then told me, later, that what we want most in life is simply to love and be loved. And it didn’t take long for me to find those words true and sobering. If we would condense the expanse of the suffering, drama, monotony, labour, and mystery of life; it is this: We were created to love and be loved.

“But what if I’m not loved?” 

I suspect that this fear is far more prevalent and havoc-wreaking than we could realise, than we could care to admit.

Perhaps we feel that being “unloved” disqualifies us from having worth.

But we must remember to look at the first three words –“we were created” – and realise that God has a purpose for each of us and each of us is more loved than we can ever imagine.

And if we’re willing to try it, sometimes the fastest way to burst the insulating bubble that prevents us from feeling love is to take the first step to love someone: Encourage a friend you seldom talk to, compliment a co-worker, help a stranger in need.

When journalist and author Howard Sounes peered beneath the famous lives of six artistes who led troubled lives that ended in suicide – among them Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix – he uncovered the dark side of the music business, along with the fragility of the most successful artistes of their time.

Sounes found that most of the artistes had terribly difficult childhoods. “All of the wealth and status they achieved was not enough to undo the impact of their early days,” he said. 

Perhaps there is something about an artist’s fame and/or extraordinary talent that causes us to confer them hero-status, view them as superhuman, or less human – and fail to consider that humanity consumes them as much as us, with flaws, insecurities, and a drive for acceptance and love.

We know from their experiences that it is not popularity, success or wealth that will rescue us from despair. And this is not limited to only troubled artists.

If we are honest with ourselves, we all have things that we wish to undo – something that happened in the past or something about ourselves that we wish to change.

The “rest” that God gives feels a lot like freedom – the freedom to live, love and grow to become who were meant to be.

“Things you can overcome don’t scar you for life.” 

But the truth is, overcoming on our own is difficult, maybe near impossible when it comes to certain deep wounds no human could possibly reach. And like Jonghyun, we may never learn “how to turn this exhausting pain into bliss”.

 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

When I first read these words that were inscribed on a building in my primary school, I had to ask someone what “weary and burdened” meant.

With the passage of time, I soon understood what it felt like to be weary and laden with a weight that I couldn’t quite carry on my own.

But as I came to Christ, I also grew to experience the rest that God promised in that verse, and in many other verses such as John 16:33.

 “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

The “rest” that God gives feels a lot like freedom – the freedom to live, love and grow to become who we were meant to be. The freedom of overcoming with Him and through Him.

“Peace is a promise He keeps”
were the words of a song that moved me to tears. If you are looking for lasting peace, would you consider going to the Promise-Keeper? 

God invites us to go on life’s journey with Him because only He knows the way home; and we’ll need all the rest for our souls that only He can give.


If you know anyone in distress or contemplating suicide, call the SOS hotline at 1800 221 4444, or email pat@sos.org.sg

You can also seek help at the following numbers:
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800 283 7019
Institute of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Service: 6389 2222
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800 353 5800
Tinkle Friend: 1800 274 4788

About the author

Fiona Teh

Fiona is low-key hilarious, a dog person, and she loves a good chat with strangers – particularly at Yakun. She also believes that everyone should know that they are absolutely worthy of love.