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Book Review: Jayson Greene’s ‘Once More We Saw Stars’ is a Staggering Work of Quiet Heartbreak

After the death of his two-year-old daughter the author turned his grief into a life-affirming memoir

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Once More We Saw Stars is a quietly heartbreaking memoir from Jayson Greene, a music editor at Pitchfork. It’s his first book—but the last he ever would have wanted to write. He and his wife Stacy lost their two-year-old daughter Greta in a horrifying accident—the girl was sitting with her grandmother on a park bench in New York City, when a piece of brick fell from the eighth story of a nearby building and hit her. The book begins with their shock: the hospital rooms, the funeral, the realization that everything has changed. As he writes, they’re figuring out “how to breathe on this new planet.”

It would be totally understandable to fear this story might be too bleak to face—indeed, there would be something strange about not worrying about that. Yet it’s an intensely moving, life-affirming story about a young couple moving through the darkest depths of grief together, making it up as they go along. The bereft dad goes back to work, trying to impress everyone with how functional he is, even though he can feel them shudder behind his back. He searches the city for safe places to scream out loud without startling innocent bystanders. (Industrial docks work well, subway tunnels not so much.) Yet he can’t stop asking himself: “How could we have failed this little person so completely?”

Once More We Saw Stars gets brutally intimate about the details of grief and loss, with two shattered people improvising their own healing rituals. Their grief warps everything about their lives, right down to the way they read the strangers around them. “A young-looking couple takes their seats behind us,” he writes. “Something in their demeanor suggests to me we have something awful in common. They are haggard, drawn, depleted looking, despite being fiercely fit. I study them more closely for signs of ‘dead child.’” They try group therapy and yoga retreats. They decide to get matching tattoos. And they become parents again. But through it all, they’re struggling to keep their spirits alive, along with their daughter’s.

If only in a secondary way, it’s also a book full of music, in moments where a seemingly trivial sound delivers an unexpected emotional kick: a Mitski show, the Elliott Smith song he sang his daughter as a lullaby, the John Prine ballad he sings to welcome his newborn son to the world. When Greene hears a record by the indie duo Girlpool, their music “pierces the ice,” as he puts it: “two guitar chords hinted at by fingers and lyrics about the dawning ralizations of youth, the ones that feel like sunrise on your entire brain.” The music moments aren’t plentiful, but the book would be unimaginable without them. Ultimately, Once More We Saw Stars is about finding moments like these and weaving a new life out of them. And in Greene’s masterful and compassionate hands, it becomes a love story, in which Greta’s spirit feels almost painfully alive.

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