Once More We Saw Stars Book Review

Two-year-old Greta Greene was sitting with her grandmother on a park bench on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when a brick crumbled from a windowsill overhead, striking her unconscious. She is immediately rushed to the hospital. Once More We Saw Stars begins with this event, leading the reader into the unimaginable.

But although it begins with the anguish Jayson and his wife Stacy confront in the wake of their daughter’s trauma and the hours leading up to her death, it quickly becomes a narrative that is as much about hope and healing as it is about grief and loss. Jayson recognizes, even in the very midst of his ordeal, that there will be a life for him beyond it—that if only he can continue moving forward, from one moment to the next, he will survive what seems un-survivable.

With raw honesty, deep emotion, and exquisite tenderness, he captures both the fragility of life and absoluteness of death, and most important of all, the unconquerable power of love. This is an unforgettable memoir of courage and transformation—and a book that will change the way you look at the world.

Grieving the Death of a Child in ‘Once More We Saw Stars’

Eventually, they return home: “Nothing in here knows about Greta’s death — not her red horsey with its empty smile, the toy bin beneath the living room chair. … We bring the news with us into each room, like smallpox.”
At Greta’s funeral, Stacy decides unexpectedly to speak. Greene writes: “Her face is pale, but her eyes are blazing. Everything and everyone she has ever been in her life — daughter, sister, colleague, wife, mother — is visible to me. She is overwhelmingly beautiful in this moment.” Stacy talks about her daughter’s loving relationship with her mother: “‘She wanted nothing more than to spend time with her Grandma Suz. She had the best day,’ she finishes, her eyes filling and her voice breaking. She sits down, spent from effort.”
Greene too finds himself spent, also enraged, at having to repeatedly explain his family’s plight. “Greta was the victim of an accident. … I have to learn to state this grievously unacceptable information over and over again. … I am the reminder of the most unwelcome message in human history: Children — yours, mine — they don’t necessarily live.” At Kripalu he and Stacy meet another couple whose toddler has died. “A pall of societal shame hovers over everyone in this club, the haunted inverse of new-parent meet-ups and mommy groups,” Greene writes. “Children who lose parents are orphans; bereaved spouses are widows. But what do you call parents who lose children? It seems telling to me there is no word in our language for our situation. It is unspeakable, and by extension, we are not supposed to exist.”
[ Read the essay Jayson Greene wrote for The Times in 2016, “Children Don’t Always Live.” ]
But exist they do because the one thing more ruthless than death is life, especially for the young. A close friend reminds Greene that after Greta died, he told her, “We are going to have to find friends with dead children.” “I have no recollection of uttering those words,” he notes, “but hearing them again months later it strikes me: Even then, some small part of me was making long-term plans for survival.” To be clear, survival does not exclude suffering, including baseless yet persistent self-recrimination. “I’m so sorry, baby girl,” he tells Greta 15 months after her death. “If we hadn’t gotten overwhelmed you’d still be here.”
They get pregnant again, with a son. At Harrison’s sonogram, Greene writes: “I feel a curious sensation coursing through my veins. It is unnamable: There is dread, but joy, too. The first round of antibiotics entering an infected patient, perhaps, or a prompt urging a wrecked system back online.”
By necessity, Greene stays mostly in his own lane. While the good and decent Stacy shines strong (that she continues to work as a lactation consultant is heroic in itself), the one character I wanted more of was Susan. Describing the accident’s aftermath, Greene writes: “Susan is at the foot of Greta’s bed, weeping softly. ‘Why couldn’t it have been me,’ she asks of no one in particular. I glance up at her, and her heartbreak is so acute it is like the sun — I can’t look at it. No one answers, but I think at her: It shouldn’t have been you. It shouldn’t have been Greta. It should have been no one.”

Throughout the book Greene intermittently acquaints us with Susan’s anguish. But happily, after Harrison’s birth, she moves near them in Brooklyn. Her “new building is big and airy and anonymous, with a massive third-floor office complex. Harrison likes to play on the couches there. He likes to throw her reading glasses on the floor and laugh.” Greene adds: “The two of them almost never go outside, however. Susan can’t quite bear to contemplate it yet.” You can only imagine. But hers is not his story to tell.
Greene never loses sight of Greta, though. After Harrison is born, Greene says to her: “Stay close to Harrison, O.K.? There are many things about his life that only you can teach him. He needs you.” Then he makes the eternal plea and promise of the marked: “And … please — stay close to me. I need you, too, and I will look for you wherever I go.”

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