“In my books, the surrealism is a way to hide it from the adults so that the kids can feel it and be validated,” she said. “How I do that, I don’t know. I think part of it is I had to do the same with my trauma.”
When kids reach out and try to talk to her about the unspeakable, she gets it. She has suffered abuse. She has been held up at gunpoint. She has faced grief and loss and disappointment and compromise. She has encountered bigotry, sexism, homophobia, and other dark aspects of our society. In her stories, she launches sneak attacks on all those things. That’s why her abstract books connect with readers who feel powerless. “They get a secret coded message of, ‘Hey, you’re going to live through your trauma,’ and I’m going to come at it from a really surreal place. Because trauma is surreal. Shock is completely surreal. Everything sounds weird. Everything feels weird.”
She’s still grappling with such things. The year after Gracie died doesn’t feel like it really happened. “I don’t remember 2019 at all. I did my taxes in 2020 for ’19, and I was going through my receipts: When was I in Atlanta? When was I in Austin? Why was I in Austin? I don’t remember Austin at all. I’ll see pictures from 2019 and I’m like, I don’t think that’s me. Was I really there? That’s weird. I do remember people being very kind to me when I went places, but I don’t remember being places. My brain just sort of shut down. I think all of our brains shut down in order to do whatever our brains need to do.”
The kids who reach out to her often feel the same, and they are not all strangers. Some are friends of her late daughter. “One of them called me: ‘You’re my trusted adult. So, I hope you don’t mind me sharing this with you.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, not at all.’ Whether they’re having troubles or struggles or are excited or whatever, or they want to bounce stuff off me.”
It’s not always easy for them to connect with parents, teachers, or other guardians. “You don’t share your trauma with your parents because your parents would never be able to handle it,” King said. “Whether our parents are really awful or even if they’re doing their best, we are all like, I can’t tell my mom that.”
Readers seek her out because they need commonsense advice from someone who hasn’t already been telling them what to do. “They write to my email or they find me on social media, or they find my Instagram, things like that,” she said.
It’s also not always easy to hear these things, but King doesn’t complain. She feels she’s built for this. “I joke about being a pain sponge myself.” It comes with immense responsibility.
While she tries to respect the privacy of those who contact her, she refuses to keep secrets if the situation seems dire. “I’ve gotten letters that are absolutely worrying, where I do look up, ‘What is the school district this child is going to?’ If I can find out anything, without too much snooping, if the information is there, I have to help. Somebody wrote to me and another author at the same time, and I was very lucky to have a copilot on that one. We did have to contact the school to make sure the child was okay. I mean, as a parent, who’s lost a child, I can tell you what, man: Call the school.”
“When someone is truly in strife and they are actually saying, ‘Look, I can’t take it anymore and I have to go.’ You’re like, ‘No, no, we’re going to keep you here somehow.’ You have a responsibility as an adult, as a human being, to try and help.”
Many kids find her online, through social media or her website. A few show up on her porch. Others find her at book festivals. The organizers of the Rochester Children’s Book Festival have even started giving her a special place in the hallway, separate from the main event. “They didn’t want these kids to be talking about personal things in a larger arena with authors lined up behind a table. And when they said that to me, that made my heart swell.”
Some can’t count on the grown-ups in their lives, or are resentful of the flaws and inaction of the older generations. King, at least, is one adult who can genuinely say she has given them something, long before she had so much taken away.
She wants to talk about her daughter’s death now because she knows how real it is, even if people in general prefer to pretend like it’s not, like it can’t happen to them or to someone they love. She wants to talk about it because people don’t know how to talk about it. “Losing your kid to suicide—the way people react around it is very strange,” she said. “We live in a very judgmental society. We are in competition. Adults are competing—whether they have the prettiest house or the most popular kids. So when you lose a child to suicide, you get to hear a lot of stupid shit.”
Most of it is aimed at trying to understand the unfathomable. People obsess about “what ifs,” they ascribe blame, they grasp for explanations and excuses. “You never have an idea of why,” King said.
All she knows for sure is that her daughter was suffering. “Gracie had depression, major depressive disorder. She was actually put on the disability list. She obviously dealt with suicidal thoughts, and she had psychosis. She heard things. I think she saw things, based on her drawings and paintings. That’s a guess, but it’s also not because I do talk to her therapist a good bit now. We still get together.”
That’s why she makes herself available to readers. Talking helps. She wishes her daughter had told her more. “I don’t think she felt that she could tell us everything,” King said. “I think there was so much going on, she couldn’t, and she told us plenty. I don’t think she told us the full depth of what was going on.”
The difficult thing to accept is that her daughter could sometimes seem fine. She could hide her illness, which makes it different than an external physical ailment someone might have. “Suddenly your trauma doesn’t mean as much, right? It doesn’t compare because it’s not outward. You look good from the outside,” King said, which she believes leads to loved ones letting down their guard or being unaware. “The problem is that sometimes we are too focused on curb appeal as parents to be able to serve our kids who are suffering.”
Her daughter seemed okay on the day she chose to end her life. Like the family video above, recorded on a dashcam during a drive to the dentist, she seemed happy. She was creative. It was hard for some to look at her and see anything but an ordinary kid, singing her heart out and playing ukulele. “She was a musician. She could write songs off the top of her head,” her mother said. “She was just so talented, high IQ, so emotionally smart. She was in stage crew, behind the scenes. She went to stage crew practice on a Saturday morning and never came home.”