In 2015, Jayson Greene’s 2-year-old daughter, Greta, was struck by a brick that had fallen from a windowsill on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she was sitting on a bench beside her grandmother. She was rushed to the hospital but could not be revived. She died the next day.
For Greene, surviving such an unthinkable tragedy meant writing about it. He didn’t know that his attempts to make the loss legible would become his first book. Once More We Saw Stars follows Greene and his family in the days and months following the accident. Greene and his wife deal with the onslaught of media attention that has made their personal cataclysm public; they organize a service to commemorate their daughter’s life; they return to their jobs and resume the familiar motions of their daily routine with a gaping void where once there was a center; they seek solace in a seminar in Massachusetts, a grief group back home, and a retreat in Santa Fe. The memoir culminates in the birth of their second child, with and for whom the family has, from the shards, reimagined life.
Like the beautiful New York Times piece that introduced many, including me, to Greene’s story, the book is a wrenching piece of writing: at once an elegy, a raw outcry of rage, and a meditation on relearning to live and work in grief’s wake. In clear, inquisitive prose, Greene, a music critic and former editor at Pitchfork, illuminates his experience of bearing the unbearable. The result is unflinching, revelatory, and wise.
I spoke with Greene over the phone. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Nathan Goldman: Most of your previous work has been music criticism. Obviously, Once More We Saw Stars is a very different kind of writing. In what ways did the experience of writing it differ from your experience writing criticism?
Jayson Greene: When you write criticism, you’re writing through a veil about yourself. You are writing about your beliefs as applied to something abstract. I was really comfortable behind that veil.
It was the most exposed, terrifying thing, to step directly into the subject of my own writing. But it was also a reflection of what happened when Greta died. My entire family was exposed to the world, just by virtue of her accident making the news. We were the front page of the Daily News. I saw her picture waving at me when we snuck out of the hospital the day after we delivered her to surgery so that they could donate her organs. We spent the next 24, 48 hours evading press, and I eventually gave a statement. I really felt exposed on a profound level as a human being in a way that I never had before, and it wasn’t on my terms.
In some ways, I wrote this book because I already had my story told. I was really conscious about not wanting the book to be a story about just me. It’s my daughter’s story. My son’s story. My wife’s story. My mother-in-law’s story. When I decided to write this book, I was deciding to retell our story.
NG: What role did the writing of the book play in the process of grieving?
JG: It began as a survival mechanism. The first or second day I was home, I started writing down my thoughts, because I had to. It was intuitive, instinctive behavior. And there was this weird clarity. Everything in the acute phase of shock has a very surreal feeling to it, because you’re dealing with something unimaginable.
I remember having this dim thought that was like, some switch in my brain is supposed to be thrown off and someone forgot to throw it. I could still write sentences even though it felt like I shouldn’t be able to have a complete thought.
So I started writing and writing and writing. It was a way not to die. I didn’t know how to make it from one hour to the next without my daughter in the world, without being a parent anymore, in a world where a brick could come and kill my daughter without any sense or meaning. I still had to live in that world. So I constructed my life as a series of exercises that would shuttle me from point A to point B. Sometimes it was going in the bedroom to scream and cry into a pillow and punch at something. Sometimes it was talking to my therapist on the phone. But mostly it was writing.
Once I realized I was writing about Greta, about grief, and about making my way through my life, I started doing it daily and with purpose. About six months later, my wife Stacy got pregnant with our second child. Then I was writing a book, and I was writing it not just for Greta but also for our unborn son. I was trying to exorcise my pain and confusion and trauma and transform it into something maybe redemptive before our second child was born. I didn’t want him to be born into a life that was a haunted version of the life that my daughter knew.
NG: How did you think about balancing the account of your experience with your reckoning with broader philosophical questions about grief?
JG: It sprung to the surface the way that, if you punch someone, they start crying. When my daughter died, multiple parts of me sprung into being at once to try and wrestle with it. I felt threatened on a basic, existential level. The universe was a malevolent place, and I didn’t feel like my life had any purpose—which is very common, particularly among people who have lost young children.
Finding other people who had that experience was a part of our journey. As I did, I found that the language and the feelings were universal. Because of the nature of our accident, it was treated, initially, like the worst possible thing that could ever happen to a human being, and how could anyone possibly survive it? And while there was comfort in that thought, because in the moment we certainly felt that, there wasn’t much of a sense of how to live in it. It wasn’t until we discovered, or discovered for ourselves—I remember coming away from our first grief-retreat weekend with this sense—that many people had their lives completely destroyed and had rebuilt them. We discovered how we were going to live in the world again.
These people, too, were grappling with the existential questions. They weren’t just treating a wound. We have this gift of being able to analyze our experiences, and that’s what makes loss so staggering. Your conscious mind howls out in pain. The way people deal with that is not to huddle up in a corner and react instinctively. What you’re really doing is taking a look at the world and figuring out not only why do I hurt this much, how can I live with this much hurt, but also, what does this hurt mean, for me? How can I reformat my entire understanding of my universe so that I can still live in it?
NG: What surprised you about writing this book, or about the process of it beginning to come into the world?
JG: When you don’t show anyone anything for a long time, you develop your own relationship with it. You don’t even think about it in terms of, what will someone else think when they read this book? So when I shared it, the sense that someone else would have an intense emotional reaction to what I wrote was flabbergasting. I had built up so much writing, and I looked up at the end of that year, and I decided it was time to figure out what I was going to do. That’s when I wrote the piece in The New York Times. And I was just washed over by a wave of people reaching out to me on social media. Telling me that their child was in intensive care that moment and wasn’t going to make it. People wrote me handwritten letters saying that they had lost their adult son, and then I got to the end of the letter and I realized that this had happened 40 years ago. I got e-mails from children who had been born after a sibling of theirs had died, so they grew up knowing a sibling they never met, telling me something like, “Your son’s going to be OK.” I surely felt I had touched something so much bigger than I had ever known existed. I felt something close to religious feeling.
All the massive surprises for me happened in the moments of people reading some of this and in sending the manuscript around and seeing that people reacted to this in the way that they did. That was a deep and profound surprise. It was impossible to wrap my head around having people respond viscerally, not just to my story, but to the way that I had decided to tell it. That was a surprise that I’m still recovering from and probably will never recover from. It was, in some ways, the most meaningful realization I came to in the entire process.
NG: You’re now in an MFA program studying fiction. I wondered if writing this book was something that opened that up for you?
JG: I’m doing fiction now because I don’t know how to do it at all. I think the book opened it up for me as a possibility: the idea that I might write about other things and that I might be a writer outside the world of the music that I had sort of spent a career’s worth of time in. I had always wanted to write books. My mother found this essay from when I was in fourth grade, and they ask you what you wanted to be, and I had said, “I want to be an author”—not writer, I said I want to be an author—“and a father.” It was astonishing to me to see that sort of clarity of vision reflected from a fourth grader to me.
However, we don’t always pursue the things that we know we want to do. Most of us don’t. I knew in my heart that I would write a book, someday. I didn’t know it could ever be this one, and I would never in a million years have hoped for it to be this one. But once Greta died, this book became urgent and necessary for me to write. And so it is my first book. So now what? What do I do? Now that I have a first book, can I have a second book? I hope the answer is yes.
This book felt impossibly big for me, and I was just making everything in my life be in it. I had to, because I was responding to the death of my future, of my daughter’s future. Greta’s future as a human being on this planet was gone. I had experienced an evacuation of meaning so profound, and someone else had, too, who would never get to know so much about life… that something had to crawl out of it. And that something had better be really fucking big.
Out of that impulse, I tried to respond to the pain with something that felt as resoundingly powerful inside of me. It was this will to keep living, and to have a family, and to be a father again. I will always be Greta’s father. But I wanted to raise a child. That was in my fourth-grade essay: I wanted to be a father. I knew that. I knew I wanted to care for kids, I knew I wanted to write. And in some ways, Greta has emboldened me to do both. Not in the ways I could have ever wanted, but in ways that I’m still eternally grateful to her for.
I don’t really know that I’ve made sense of this part of it yet, because it’s more about my future as a human being, and less about Greta. I am stepping again into this weird new unknown. I’m loving the act of writing fiction. I do feel emboldened by Greta’s spirit. I remember very early on when she was six months old, I was working so hard at the time. A full-time job at a digital music service called eMusic and a part-time job at Pitchfork at night, because I felt like I owed it to the person who was growing up in my house to do the things that I said I wanted to do in this life. Your children offer you a referendum on who you’ve become, and it’s second by second, and you are desperate to try to catch up with that version of yourself. Just because your children cease existing on this world doesn’t mean they cease inspiring you to try to become that person.