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In 'Once More We Saw Stars,' Grief And Love Together

Four years ago the unthinkable happened to Jayson Greene. His 2-year-old daughter, Greta, was visiting her grandmother. The two were sitting on a bench on New York's Upper West Side when a brick came loose from a nearby building. It struck Greta in the head, and she died three days later. Greene began keeping a journal, which turned into his new memoir, Once More We Saw Stars.

When you first meet Jayson and Stacy Greene, you'd be hard pressed to see any sign of the tragedy that struck out of the blue four years ago. They are warm and welcoming, quick to smile and laugh. They seem very close, picking up easily on each other's cues. And they dote on their son, Harrison, who's just arriving home from day care with his mother — Jayson playfully calls him Monkey Butt, and asks if he wants to take his shoes off downstairs or upstairs.

It would have been impossible for Jayson to imagine such a scene in the days and weeks following Greta's death — and the Greenes did not get to this point easily. Back then, Jayson remembers, he had only one recurring thought. "I was saying it out loud over and over again, because it was the only thought that I was capable of having: 'Why don't I just die?'" he says. "It was as if my heart was beating and I was trying to will it to stop. I didn't want to have to do anything to make that happen. And I didn't want to leave my wife or my family necessarily, but I was very, very clear that what I wanted was for all thought and feelings and sensations to just stop."

Jayson says they had to come to terms, not only with Greta's death, but with the way she died — an accident so random that it almost seemed malevolent. Jayson, an optimist by nature, says it brought it out an anger in him that he didn't know existed. "There was such rage in me that bubbled up instinctively, and it was my world view confronting the randomness of the accident," he says. "And the idea that I might be so grievously angry that it would follow me around everywhere and that I would want to scream and punch things struck me as monstrous. I was horrified that that was something inside of me."

Not long after Greta died, Jayson had to get out of the house. He went for a run, and as he entered a nearby park, something happened that even now he cannot really explain: He saw Greta.

"She stepped out from behind a tree," he says, "and I was deeply aware that no one else could see her but me, but yet I ran over to her because it was so overwhelmingly real, and I picked her up, and she told me to go for my run. And so I ran into the park and tears were just coming down my face, and I got to the edge of the park, and that is where I wrote down this sentence: There will be more light upon this earth for me."

Jayson says he and his wife Stacy faced a grief so profound that they came to see a kind of beauty in it. They found themselves travelling down a spiritual path; they weren't religious, but Stacy says they were searching for answers, and they wanted to find a way to connect with Greta.

"Any religion, any practice, any spiritual practice that brought with it some sense of connection, we were open to but we were also skeptical," she says. "And there was also, I think, in some of the grief work that we've done a lot gets talked about your heart. It gets broken, and then it gets more open. You are kind of levelled and forced to change, but in that, you're more open to things you wouldn't have been open to before."

Grieving her is in part a way to express our love for her, as is remembering her joyfully. But we will always have had a daughter here with us on earth who is not here.

That process of opening themselves up also allowed them to see a possible future — a future that would include another child. Stacy says they know they are lucky they were able to have another child. They have met many grieving parents who could not. And they know they have to guard against their own fears and expectations for Harrison. "He is his own person, we did not replace Greta, we had another child," she says. "And I think that's something we talked about, just making sure that our intention was true and that we weren't putting some burden on him to be something for us, because that would be unfair to him as a person."

We are not moving on, says Stacy, leaving Greta behind. But we are choosing to live — and that means moving foward, aware that grief is now a part of life. There is a way, says Jayson, in which grief and love become synonymous: "Grieving her is in part a way to express our love for her, as is remembering her joyfully. But we will always have had a daughter here with us on earth who is not here. And so that will be an absence that we contend with for for every single day that we are here. Until we're not anymore."

We will always have two children, he says — and we will always have space for Greta in our lives.

This story was produced for radio by Tom Cole and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.