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Jayson Greene's heartbreaking memoir about his daughter's death

Frozen moments: Jayson Greene with Greta, 2014. Photo/Joni Greene/Supplied

When his daughter died in a freak accident, Jayson Greene wrote to cope – and created a remarkable book. Andrew Anthony talks to the Once More We Saw Stars author.

In the throes of grief following the 1988 death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh, the novelist Julian Barnes received a letter from a friend that said: “Nature is so exact; it hurts exactly as much as it is worth.” He found these words, if not consoling, then reassuringly true. At least he could draw some measure of solace from the knowledge that his pain was the consequence of a loving relationship that had lasted almost 30 years.

But what of the bereaved parent of a dead child? What sense can they make of their bottomless grief? There isn’t an accumulation of experience to compensate for the suffering; there is an absence not just of the loved one but also of the wealth of memorable moments and of the milestones to come that are any parent’s natural expectation. This is the unbearable circumstance that the American journalist Jayson Greene writes about in his remarkable memoir Once More We Saw Stars.

In May 2015, he and his wife, Stacy, were overworked young professionals living in Brooklyn, juggling the demands of their jobs and an exuberant two-year-old daughter, Greta. They were getting grouchy with each other and were in need of a little respite.

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That came when Greta went for an overnight stay with her beloved maternal grandmother in Manhattan. The couple had a lazy spring morning to do whatever they wanted and, after a rare lie-in, they set out to catch a film they both wanted to see. It was then that they noticed a series of missed calls from Stacy’s mother, Susan.

They phoned her back and a distressed Susan explained that there had been an accident. She and Greta were on their way to the hospital. A piece of masonry, dislodged from the eighth floor of a badly maintained building, had fallen and hit them – Susan on the leg, Greta on the head.

The couple rushed to the hospital, where Greta had an emergency operation, but they were informed that there was next to no chance she would survive.

“We glance around us,” writes Greene with accurate foreboding, “realising this is the last we’ll ever see of the world as we’ve known it. Whatever comes next will raze everything to the ground.”

After a brief period of intense reflection, they soon found themselves signing the forms for the donation of their daughter’s organs, and then her life support was switched off. They were given a folder of advice on how to grieve.

“They are my first set of instructions on how to breathe on this new planet,” writes Greene.

Grief is such a powerful emotion that it’s no surprise it has inspired many extraordinary books: in The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion documented the period following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne; CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed in 1961, written following the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, inspired a script by William Nicholson, which was made into a television film, a stage play and a feature film, all entitled Shadowlands.

That Greene’s book can be discussed alongside such celebrated works is a testament to its moving candour and emotional bravery. The New York Times accurately described it as “a narrative of grief and acceptance that is compulsively readable and never self-indulgent”. A former senior editor at the online music magazine Pitchfork, Greene has taken an inexplicably random incident – what would constitute every parent’s darkest nightmare – and made from it something humane, profound and ultimately enlightening.

Greene looks like an archetypal thirtysomething Brooklynite – checked shirt, glasses, designer stubble. You could easily imagine him in a Park Slope cafe with a baby carrier and a smartphone. But looks are deceptive. As he self-mockingly describes himself in the book, he is in some sense a “rock star of grief”. And there is no delicate way of broaching the issue of his loss when I speak to him on Skype. So I begin by tentatively asking if the banal aspects of fatherhood were difficult to recall following such a shocking death.

Stacy and Jayson with Harrison. Photo/Supplied

“No, not all,” he replies gently. “I can recall every detail of the dirty small playground she played in. I can still recall the smell of the plastic slide. I can tell you about how she would pick up a tiny piece of chalk that had been rained on, and she would try to colour with it, and it would crumble in her fingers. Every one of those moments was frozen in perfect relief.”

For all its natural and necessary place in the shadow of death, grief can also be destructive. Some people never recover from the emotional trauma of losing a child, particularly an only child. Many relationships do not survive the feelings of emptiness and even meaninglessness that the child’s absence brings. Many bereaved parents cannot cope with the memories that their partner’s presence provokes.

Early on in the book, Greene confesses to his brother that, for these reasons, he fears losing Stacy. However, not only do they manage to stay together, but also their relationship deepens to a new level of love and understanding. What accounted for that development?

“I think that once Greta died,” he says, “our compassion for each other’s suffering was so great that it took the place of any petty annoyances that make up a marriage. There was no time for that. If your spouse says something that rubs you up the wrong way because you’re also stressed or tired, you often don’t learn to control your momentary irritation.

“When you’re both grieving for your child and have such a focus on how much pain the other is in, you instinctively huddle towards the other. We’d already lost so much, there was no way we could fathom losing the other.”

Even huddled together, and with the loving support of devoted friends and family members, the journey forward was a brutal one. How do you absorb the fact that your completely healthy, happy, inquisitive and lively young daughter has died as a result of something falling from the sky? How do you adjust to such an unacceptable reality? The answer is slowly, with countless setbacks and an enormous amount of anger.

For all the scenes it contains of abject despair, Once More We Saw Stars is not a misery memoir. But it is a survival memoir. And anger, among many other things, is a survival mechanism.

“I think everyone who’s been through a tragedy will have moments of anger,” says Greene. “I think it’s perfectly natural, normal and healthy. I was never a person who was comfortable with my own anger. It was an emotion that I felt ashamed of. But after Greta’s death, the anger was so blinding that it forced me to reckon with it. So of course I’m angry, but I don’t walk around angry all the time. The only real important part of anger is knowing you’re not ruled by it.”

To some extent, the book is a lesson in just being, in finding a way, however unlikely or unpromising, to keep going. “Trauma is a rip in your understanding of the universe,” Greene says. “The idea that you can prepare for trauma is wrong. Trauma is the unforeseen and the terrible.”

He thinks this is why people are drawn to stories like his: they allow us to visit, vicariously, the scene of devastation, as if psychologically proofing ourselves against the worst. That’s a doomed endeavour, according to Greene, but such books as his can and do help people through their own difficulties. He knows this because there were several books he turned to for intellectual and emotional sustenance.

Apart from Didion’s, he read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air (“a beautiful story of the inherent and ultimate meaning of existence”) and Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, which examines how the body processes trauma. But perhaps the most relevant book to his situation was the “graphic memoir” Rosalie Lightning, whose author, Tom Hart, lost his daughter to sudden unexplained death syndrome.

Greene and Stacy even followed in Hart’s footsteps, going to a spiritual sanctuary in New Mexico, as they explored alternative therapeutic approaches, including a grief retreat at which a medium was present. You can feel them grappling with the outer limits of their reason, desperately trying to extract meaning from the meaningless. As neither is religious, I ask if Greta’s death had changed their philosophical outlook about spiritual beliefs.

“In some ways, the story I tell in the book is of two full-grown adults bumbling their way and learning a language that we’d never spoken,” he says. “I do see the world differently in the light of Greta’s death. I feel I respond to life as it happens to me. I couldn’t help but be taught by her death that there were larger forces that, in order for me to keep living, to keep surviving and to rediscover any relationship to hope, I needed to get in touch with. I definitely consider my life to have a spiritual dimension that did not exist in any concentrated way when Greta was here.”

But what most helped him regain a firm grip on life was two tried and tested ways of reshaping perspective. The first was writing. Keeping a journal on his phone helped ease the most punishing surges of emotion, when life seemed no longer worth living. He also realised after a while that he was redrafting the raw material of grief into something more coherent with its own life that would go on to become his book.

The second, perhaps more critical development, is that Stacy became pregnant and, 18 months after the tragedy, gave birth to Harrison. Parents of young children can often be oversensitive to potential dangers and therefore overprotective of enquiring young souls. Presumably that instinct is even more pronounced when you’ve lost a child in such bolt-from-the-blue circumstances. Have he and Stacy been able to quell that impulse with Harrison?

“Because what happened [to Greta] was so random and freakish,” he says, “we were faced with a choice. We could either be afraid of everything, because anything could happen and any element of our environment could somehow become deadly, or we could step back and acknowledge that we lived in a world where freakish things did happen occasionally and one happened to us, and we could choose to be afraid of nothing. And, I think in choosing to give birth to Harrison and raise him, we’re explicitly choosing the latter.”

The book, then, is at heart a celebration of life: of Greta’s, so cruelly truncated, and then of the lives of the grief-stricken parents, determined to carry on, to still seek joy and happiness in a universe that could conspire to loosen a piece of masonry from a Manhattan building beneath which their daughter was innocently sitting on a bench. And, finally, it celebrates the healing, unique possibilities of a new life.

Before I say goodbye, I tell Greene that, after reading his book, I was compelled to send a gushing message to my youngest daughter, who was then travelling in Southeast Asia. She wrote back: “Aw, thanks, Dad. What spurred that?”

He breaks into a beaming smile. “I couldn’t think of any better feedback to get than that,” he says.

You don’t have to be a parent to marvel at the heartbreaking achievement of Once More We Saw Stars. But if you are one, it’s a book that will make you appreciate all over again what it means to love a child.

This article was first published in the June 22, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.