Review: Jayson Greene’s tragic tale of loss is also an inspiring hymn to hope

The raw and unflinching memoir is one of the best of the year

Jayson Greene with his daughter Greta. Photo by Michael Meren
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About halfway through Jayson Greene's beautiful, raw, unflinchingly honest memoir, he reaches a moment of clarity. "Children who lose parents are orphans," he writes. "Bereaved spouses are widows. But what do you call parents who lose children?" For Greene, it's telling that there is no word in the English language for such an unspeakably sad situation. "And by extension, we are not supposed to exist," he writes, grappling with how to "breathe on this new planet".

In 2015, Greene's daughter Greta was happily babbling away with her grandmother on a park bench in New York when a windowsill eight storeys above them crumbled, fell and struck her on the head. She had just celebrated her second birthday. The opening sections of Once More We Saw Stars are utterly brutal as Greene, his wife Stacy and their extended family and friends realise that the little girl who had already become a force of nature – stubborn, protective, mischievous, strong-willed, curious – will not make it. "Hi monkey," says Stacy, in the hospital. "We didn't get much time together. It wasn't enough, was it?"

Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene. Courtesy Hodder & Stoughton

Soon afterwards, Greta dies. Greene, who is a writer and editor for US music website Pitchfork, pulls off something remarkable in the pages that follow. He turns an extreme tragedy, the absolute worst nightmare of anyone who has children in their lives – as the father of a three-year-old I could barely turn the pages – into a tribute to his daughter and his wife, and a story of love, grief, hope and survival.

Even though Once More We Saw Stars might seem almost too hard to contemplate reading, it becomes that rare achievement – a story that can inspire us all to live our lives better, to hold our loved ones closer. Partly, one suspects, thanks to Greene's background in cutting-edge, modern music journalism, there's also a refreshing cynicism and – in the right place – dry wit to the writing that steers this undertaking some distance away from sentimental self-help guide and towards something more modern and interesting.

Even though Once More We Saw Stars might seem almost too hard to contemplate reading, it becomes that rare achievement – a story that can inspire us all to live our lives better, to hold our loved ones closer.

The couple go to a grief retreat at the Kripalu Institute in Massachusetts, wince at the cheesy name of one of the seminars – "From Grieving To Believing" – and liken the presence of a medium to Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. "What had our grief made of us?" he asks. "Had we now joined ranks with the suckers, the wide-eyed, the wilfully deluded?"

This grounded, healthy scepticism becomes really important to the book as the couple continue to try to make sense of what has happened to them and who they have become. They go to yoga out of a desperation to fill their days, Stacy gets a tattoo, Jayson ends up "prospecting" for places in the city where he can scream without anyone noticing. "My success rate surprises me," he writes. "I make the city quake, rattling loose screws and hearing myself bounce off walls." Another moment of release comes when Jayson publicly argues with the leader of a grief support group. "I saw that coming a mile away," Stacy responds, dryly. 

They end up at another retreat in New Mexico, feeling their way to a new, more spiritual life on what would have been Greta's third birthday. What occurs there is odd, otherworldly and surreal. They have visions of Greta and eagles. By this point, though, whether you personally believe in spirit journeys and realms is unimportant because it's Jayson who finally understands how to navigate his life after his daughter's death to arrive at a "sort of peace".

"It was as if my heart were diseased," he writes. "The sickness of my anger, my bitterness, and my self-pity had spread. The eagle had torn it out of me, organ by organ." And this sense of renewal is vital because in Once More We Saw Stars's incredibly emotional final chapter, Stacy is preparing to have another baby, Harrison. They need to be ready.

Shadowed by what has gone before it may be, but Greene fashions a soaring piece of writing about the birth experience. "I feel like I am watching consciousness fill his eyes like fluid," he writes. And then, as so often, Jayson masterfully lightens the moment. "Back in the game, I hear in my head … a wry sportscaster's voice, someone who has called a thousand plays and still never seen things quite like this before." 

Harrison, as he grows up, falls over and falls ill, like all babies and toddlers do. Naturally, each time Jayson and Stacy cannot help but feel death is clawing at their ankles, hell yawning back open again. But there’s a difference this time. “With each accident, each illness, Harrison is teaching us: sometimes children live,” he writes. It’s a small, but somehow gigantic victory in a genuinely affecting book, and one of the best memoirs of the year.

Once More We Saw Stars is published by Alfred A Knopf