Rest in Peace, Moonbin
What I Really Wanted Facing Death
Content warning: death, family loss, suicide
I think about death a lot. How can I not? People die all the time, as often as they are born. I am not saying this in a theoretical way. I see and hear it happen to real people, people I know.
On the morning of April 20 of this year, I experienced another death. Moonbin, a member of the Korean boy band Astro, was found dead in his home. Without any noticeable intrusion, the cause of death was speculated to be suicide.
The timing of his death felt oddly fitting to me. Just before going to bed last night, my partner Chris was telling me about a journalist's talk he just attended. Kate Fagan has researched and talked about the high pressure on student-athletes in elite colleges which led to one of their suicides. I said back to Chris that someone should study the deaths by suicide among Koreans in the entertainment industry. It happens frequently enough that I can’t get it out of my mind completely.
I empathize with all people who suffer, but I have an extra soft spot for people who die by suicide. Not because I pity the termination of their lives, but because I understand how painful it is until they carried out the act of suicide.
There have been periods of my life when I was suicidal. In the Biodyne Model, I was in Stage 2 out 3, the planning stage. I was working at a charter school in Harlem. As a full-time teacher in my first year, I struggled immensely. I was constantly stressed and could not sleep well. My backpack was full of piles of worksheets to grade. I felt like a robot that carried the bag of work between home and school day after day.
In order to take the subway to school, I had to cross a bridge over a creek. Walking back home in the dark was harder than the one in the morning. There was no sun, no sight of birds, no energy left. I dragged my heavy feet along fast-passing cars. In the middle of the bridge, there was a small landing I could step aside. I stood there for minutes, with the backpack weighing down on my shoulders. I stared at the black water flowing underneath and visualized myself falling into it. What scared me most at that time was the possibility that this might actually happen one day. You might think that suicidal ideation comes from a desire to die, but I was scared of it happening.
Once I confided about my suicidal state to Chris, he started picking me up at the subway station. Because there was no signal underground back then, I messaged him as soon as I got off the train and started walking over the bridge. Soon after, I would see Chris walking toward me, and just the sight of him brought me a huge relief. I won’t die today.
My maternal grandmother died by suicide. Many people regret having had a suicide attempt. You might think that the ideal situation in such a case would be that their attempt fails and they get a second chance at life. That is not always true. It depends on what happens after they get resuscitated. Actions need to be taken in order to change the circumstance that caused the suicide attempt; otherwise, resuscitation loses its purpose.
What happened to my grandmother was the least ideal situation after a suicide attempt. She was taken to the emergency room and got resuscitated. Her condition was so severe that she was kept in the intensive care unit for three weeks. Then she was moved to an inpatient room, then to a senior care hospital, and then to an assisted living facility. She did not receive any psychiatric treatment. She was separated from the family members that she dearly missed. The pain in many parts of her body continued. She was right back in the isolated situation in which she attempted suicide. The only difference was that now she had no access to potentially self-harming objects. Sharp items or poisonous chemicals were not allowed in the room. She was under the surveillance of the staff around the clock.
A number of Korean entertainers have died by suicide in my lifetime. Previously, I received each news report solemnly and grieved over the painful time they had endured until their lives ended. Each time it happened, it became big news in the media. Thousands of fans mourn and visit the public funeral site. Sooner or later the media coverage stops, and there is no more talk about their deaths.
I remember one of those deaths in particular. A singer Seo Jiwon died by suicide on the first day of 1996. The news came as a big shock to my 14-year-old middle school self. I did not comprehend the meaning of suicide yet. I just knew that the song he had just released, 내 눈물 모아, was very moving. I listened to it repeatedly on my Walkman and sang it with friends in karaoke.
Many more Korean singers and actors have died since then: a few that I think of often are 최진실, her younger brother 최진영, and 종현 from the band Shinee. I am lucky that I was not attached to any of them. I cannot imagine facing an untimely death of an artist that I follow closely. Yet that is precisely what has been happening to so many fans of K-pop and K-drama worldwide.
One of many emotions I feel after a mass shooting in the US is despair. It is very hard to feel hopeful in such a situation because I have repeatedly witnessed that no mass shooting can bring about a meaningful change to US gun laws and regulations. I am 100 percent sure that another shooting will happen. It is just a matter of time.
I feel similarly about Korean people dying by suicide. Without a drastic improvement in the mental health care system and the destigmatization of mental illness, people will continuously be put into situations where they feel stuck with only one choice: death. As a person who has been in that situation, I can tell you this. At the very moment of “wanting to die,” what I really really wanted was “living without pain.”
I believe in the healing power of sharing and connecting. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment and share this letter with your loved ones living with grief.
More on my grieving over grandmother: