Zibby Owens: I had a really emotional interview with Jayson Greene who I had also interviewed on Instagram Live. If you want to watch that, you can do that on my IG TV channel. Jayson is the author of memoir Once More We Saw Stars which is about the death of his two-year-old daughter in 2015. Her name was Greta. For people who live in New York, you might remember reading about it because she died sitting with her grandmother when bricks from a nearby building fell on her head and ultimately killed her, which I will never forget because, oh, my gosh, it’s everyone’s worst nightmare to have something like this happen. Jayson is an author, a former music critic, and editor who served as senior editor of online music magazine Pitchfork. He’s a journalist, not just of this memoir, but of all types of writing. He really openly shared his experience, and his experience even writing the memoir. I think you’ll find it really eye-opening, illuminating, and just very emotional and important.

Welcome, Jayson. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Jayson Greene: Thanks for having me, Zibby. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: It’s nice we can follow up our Instagram Live little teaser with a full podcast, so thank you for coming back.

Jayson: I know. It was so nice to chat with you. I’m really glad we get to chat a little bit more. Any human interaction right now is good, I’ll tell you. We’re all in our little cubbyholes.

Zibby: The times continue to get more and more crazy. By the third time I interview you, who knows what’s going to go on?

Jayson: Oh, god. Let’s not even go there. Right, I know.

Zibby: Could you please tell listeners what your amazing, inspiring, beautiful memoir is about?

Jayson: Thank you. I wrote a memoir called Once More We Saw Stars. It’s basically an account of the fifteen months that separated two of the most defining events of my life. On May 17th, 2015, my two-year-old daughter Greta was killed. A brick fell from an eight-story windowsill on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Greta was sitting on a bench on the sidewalk with my mother-in-law, her grandmother Susan. Susan was hit in the legs. Greta was struck in the head, and she never woke up. At the time, she was our only child. We donated her organs. We swiftly became headline news. My wife Stacy and I had to go back after forty-eight hours of saying goodbye to the life that we thought we were going to live with our daughter and make sense of what was left. Fifteen months later, Stacy gave birth to our son Harrison. The book I wrote measures the distance between those two places. It represents one person’s attempt to sort of take stock of what massive emotional trauma and loss will mean to a life, first my own and my wife’s. Then as we become pregnant with our second child, the book becomes sort of a reckoning for what that life may or may not mean for that child. The title hints a little bit at the journey that I went on where we were in a place of profound despair and darkness, and over the course of the time basically living through that trauma, processing the massive vacuum that was left in our lives after Greta was killed and preparing ourselves to be parents again, we emerged into this other place, what I like to call cautious hopefulness. That’s sort of the story.

Zibby: Wow. I know when we spoke before, you were journaling about it anyway and then made the conscious choice at some point to not just keep these thoughts for yourself, but to share them with the world. Can you talk about that decision?

Jayson: Yes, I’m happy to. It happened six months after. By it, I mean the decision to turn my journal into something else happened when Stacy got pregnant. I had been writing about the feeling of living through this indescribable pain since the minute I got back from the hospital. I don’t really know why or how I was writing. I just know that it was, in the moment, something I felt very compelled to do. Part of my strategy for living through the next half an hour or whatever was coming my way, maybe I would be on the phone with my mother or perhaps with a therapist. I would be crying or whatever it was that I was feeling. I would be hearing myself say these things. I would be explaining what was going on as best I could or just crying and saying, why did this happen? Then after I got off the phone, I would sit there and I would almost listen to what I just said. Then something told me to write it down. As I did, I felt like something important to me was happening, so I kept doing it.

I don’t think that a lot of people that I’ve talked to have told me anything similar about their trauma. Most people I talk to tell me that they were unable to write sentences or read or focus because of the acute nature of what they were living through. I don’t know why I was able to, but I paid attention to the fact that I was, even through everything. I made it a bit of a practice. Six months later, I had a lot of writing. It was all for me, really. It was all just me making sense of my new existence and reconciling with all the nasty, ugly emotions that come up when you’re grieving. Then when Stacy got pregnant, I looked at what I had. It just clicked into my brain. I was actually writing something for my son, and if not explicitly for him, then for myself as I prepared to be someone else’s father. For me, part of that became, I have to show this to someone else. This can’t just be a private journal for me anymore. I had a real need to share it somehow, and so it started to become a book, at least in my brain. I continued writing. I didn’t change anything I was doing. Every day, I wrote about what I felt. As I did, I kind of, in the back of my mind, was thinking a little differently about where this journey was going and why I was taking the time to do it.

It was a very slow evolution. I didn’t show anyone a word, a word, and including my own wife, what I’d written — she knew I was writing, but just left me alone with it; she was doing her own private grieving as well — until many weeks after Harrison, our second child, was born, about seven weeks after. I had spent the first several weeks of his life — newborn babies sleep a lot, and so I was sitting there writing. It was kind of pouring out of me. I finally stepped back. It had been about a year that I’d been writing nonstop. I said, someone needs to see this now. Only then did I really, I looked someone else in the eye and told them, I’m writing a book, here it is. I talk about this at length because it’s interesting to me as I hear myself talk about it. It emerged from such an internal place. I only sort of understand the slow journey it took to becoming a book by talking about it because I didn’t initially write any of these very intimate thoughts down with the intent of sharing them with anyone.

Zibby: That’s exactly what makes them so good. Other authors give advice all the time, somebody I spoke to earlier today, write as if you’re talking to a friend. Write as if nobody will ever read the words. You didn’t do that as a trick. You actually were doing that as your own therapy-based practice. That’s why people connect through words. The more open you are, the more that the reader can see into you and connect. I think that’s the gift of it as well. I should’ve said earlier, obviously I said this before when we spoke, but just to hear you talk about it, I’m just so profoundly sorry for your loss and what your family went through, you and everything else. I don’t want to be glib about it just because we’ve already discussed it. It’s heartbreaking every time to discuss it. I know I can’t feel what you feel, but I just want you to know that I’m here and my heart goes out to you in every way it can.

Jayson: Thanks a lot, Zibby. That means a lot. I appreciate that.

Zibby: I know in the book you talk a lot about coping and how you are getting through and whatever else, but how do you make sense of then having another child into a world that has not been upholding its end of the bargain, essentially, in creating a safe place to raise a child? How did you come to terms with that? How did you emotionally even cope with that?

Jayson: That’s really interesting that you said what you just said, actually, this idea that the world’s not holding up its end of the bargain. I felt that way very strongly after the freak accident that took Greta. How could this happen? In the time since, I’ve come to have a different idea about what the world offers you or doesn’t. There are so many different ways for me to talk about my feelings through different lenses. One of them, I haven’t talked a lot about because it felt impersonal or it didn’t feel like it fit me, but one that I’ve thought about is political. By that, I should say that I’ve been extremely fortunate. I’ve lived my life the beneficiary of tremendous amounts of good fortune, unexamined, relatively speaking. You can be thoughtful about your privilege to a certain extent, but you still live in it. It’s not easy to just turn around and gaze at every decision you’ve made and see how it’s affected other things or other people or where it’s come from. That’s hard. When your daughter dies in such a freak accident, you start to reexamine what you thought the world sort of owes you, or you ask yourself, did I believe the world owed me things?

I think I really was shocked into a realization that I’d had this very complacent relationship with the world and its danger or lack thereof. I don’t believe that the world has made a bargain with me to keep me safe, or my children safe. I think that’s something that others feel. That’s something that some people have felt forever and that people who have been fortunate enough not to feel are struggling with more and more. Oh, my god, I’m not going to be safe. I’m not going to be safe either. I think that’s a very real thought that makes people react in all kinds of unexpected ways. I think that now that Harrison is three years old — we live in a city that’s sort of tearing itself apart in a way right now. What’s happening is so painful and, in some ways, necessary. We are lucky people. Even with what happened to Greta, we are lucky people in the world right now. I can’t help but think about that whenever I talk about safety or raising a child in this world. Yes, in many ways, the world that I’m raising my son in feels different to me and its dangers feel different than the ones that my parents raised me in, but that’s all very subjective. It means more to me than it means to my son. My son believes the world is safe and happy and great. He’s three. That’s what you’re supposed to believe, again, if you’re lucky. That’s kind of my answer to that. That’s how I feel about raising my child in an increasingly perilous world. Among many, many other things, the lesson I took from the brick falling and killing my daughter was that I had believed the world was safe and that that was probably foolish.

Zibby: I think that moment when, and I think it happens for people at all different times, but when you realize that what you relied on was actually a figment of your own imagination perhaps designed to stem or mitigate your own levels of anxiety and you realize that living that way is really just a construct of your brain and is not actually true, that’s a big wake-up call, and one that is hard for people to adjust to whether it’s in something awful and traumatic like losing your daughter as you went through or something much smaller, a car accident or just anything when you realize for the first time, wait a minute here, this isn’t really what I —

Jayson: — I don’t have a seatbelt on, and if I do, it might not protect me. The state that you go into when you realize that for the first time is called hypervigilance. Then suddenly, your body — it’s a very common aftereffect of trauma. I’m not an expert. I’ve read a fair bit about trauma just trying to understand my own. Some of the words that have stuck with me because they resonated, this idea of hypervigilance, which means that your whole system then suddenly watches everything, whereas before you felt like you were watching nothing. You have to watch everything. That’s an equally unnatural state of being and not, in itself, sustainable. Then you have to learn to live in between.

Zibby: Easier said than done, perhaps.

Jayson: I don’t know how to do it either. Easier said than done.

Zibby: I feel like there are so many examples of a loss like this really affecting marriages. A child dies and then there’s the divorce on top of it or you can’t get back from it. I don’t know if you’re watching I Know This Much is True on HBO written by Wally Lamb. Now it’s a limited series. I’m bringing that up only in, how do you cope with somebody when you’ve gone through a loss together like this? Yet you not only have stayed together, you’ve had another child. Not what’s the secret, but in your situation, what was it that kept you together as opposed to becoming one of the casualties of having your marriage as a casualty as well? if I’m not prying. You don’t have to answer.

Jayson: It’s a question I asked myself early on. I think that in the dawning enormity of what was happening to us, one of the first thoughts that flitted through my head, albeit kind of hazily, was, oh, my god, what’s going to happen to us? What’s going to happen to our marriage? Marriages don’t survive this. I think that I just had that received wisdom in my head. I know that it bears out. When you look at families who’ve lost children, many of them do end in divorce. Without knowing any firsthand, yet, experience, how I was going to feel and how Stacy and I were going to feel, I was terrified at this idea. Oh, my god, I’m going to lose her too. It was sort of a response to the moment. The answer that I discovered was that we really needed each other more than we ever had before, even. We’d already just lost our member of our family. It seemed inconceivable that we also not be with each other. I’m really weary to, not because I’m private, but to talk about how our marriage survived only because I don’t think it’s applicable to anybody else but the two of us at all. To tell about how Stacy and I survived, that is really only to tell you a story about Stacy and me. It doesn’t really tell you — I don’t think there’s advice to give to anybody about how to survive a trauma with their marriage intact.

I just know that we didn’t fall apart. I know that we didn’t fall apart, one, because we just felt this instinctive need to be with each other and comfort each other through it. That just was. Also, I think that we discovered that we needed similar enough things that we didn’t — some people, when they’re grieving as a couple, if you’re grieving a child, you find that the two of you don’t have the same needs. That is, I think, very difficult to maintain closeness in a marriage through. Although, I don’t know because I didn’t experience that. We didn’t have diametrically opposed needs. Some people, for instance, one of the parents has a deep, deep need to talk about their child all the time, and the other parent might not be able to hear it because it’s too painful. I was aware that that could have been a problem for one of us. I didn’t know, but it wasn’t. We both had similar enough needs that we were able to help each other. Other than that, I don’t have really have — you know what I mean?

Zibby: It’s okay. I’m sorry.

Jayson: No, it’s a mystery. Two people’s relationship over time is, if anything, an ever-deepening mystery. We’ve been through a lot together in a short period of time.

Zibby: Have you talked to Harrison about Greta?

Jayson: Yeah. He’s three and a half now. By now, he knows who his sister is. He has known her name since he was born. As he got older, as he probably became more conscious, he learned more about her. He, at some point, and we were waiting, became more conscious of the fact that this Greta person wasn’t here. It was a while of letting him just be and not telling him anything that he wasn’t asking us about before he did ask where Greta was. That was fairly recent, within the past six to eight months. I told him that she died. He seemed sad for a second. He’s so young that it’s not really a graspable fact anyway. Then he knew that. I thought about telling Harrison a lot as this defining event that would change him and me and everything forever because that’s what it did to Stacy and me. That’s not how it’s worked in reality. If I stop to examine it, I realize that that was me worrying and it was never going to be realistic. We’ve told him a little bit at a time. Only very recently on what was the sixth anniversary of Greta’s death did we tell — actually, I wasn’t even home. He asked Stacy, my wife — what were his words? — why Greta died. That was what he said. She said, I don’t know why Buddy, but here’s what happened. His only questions, apparently, were who were the people that lived in the building? which is interesting and beautiful to me that that was something his mind went to, and actually, I don’t even know. What was wild because I wasn’t there — what was interesting to me about that moment in thinking about it now was that it wasn’t such a momentous moment. It wasn’t such a revelatory, unbelievable, stop-everything moment of disclosure that I felt like our lives just stopped. I think that I acknowledged that. Stacy and I looked at each other over his head. Then the evening went back to what it would’ve been normally. That’s been interesting to me as a parent, to live through what were some of my worst fears as he was still an infant and as Stacy was pregnant.

Zibby: Is writing going to continue to serve you? Do you continue to do it as a pastime? Do you feel like you would want to write another book? I know you were an editor at Pitchfork. You obviously had a whole career in this as well, so it’s not just a dalliance. Is it serving you emotionally the way it did before? Are you using it the same way?

Jayson: I’m a writer. I’m not a person who got a memoir out of his system and is now not a writer anymore. I’ve been a writer for fifteen, twenty years. When I was asked what I wanted to be at the age of seven, I said a writer. The fact that I wrote this memoir is a testament to the fact that I’m compulsively a writer and will never not be. Writing is part of how I — it’s one of the only ways I know how to make sense of things. To answer the question about the book, I’m writing another book, actually. Shortly after the book was sold, Once More I Saw Stars, and I realized that I was going to have a book, I started thinking, I know I don’t want to only have one book out in the world. I’ve always known in my life that I would write a book. I didn’t ever hope or want it to be this one. Now that it is this one, what am I going to do? I went back to school for an MFA that I’ve been thinking about doing for a very long time because it seems like an appropriate moment in my life to do it. I’m writing a novel. I will be writing. It will serve the same function. The novel has loss in it. It couldn’t not have loss in it. Probably nothing I write will not have loss in it again as long as I’m writing. In that way, it continues to serve me as this sort of conduit.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Jayson: Write all the things down that you think you should write down. If you think, I should write that down, you probably already should’ve written it down. Keep something by. I feel like the moment that I realized that I was a writer by trade, to use a somewhat pretentious sounding — was when I started carrying something that I could write down. For a while, it was a notepad. To be honest, this is maybe sacrilegious, I have never liked notepads. I’d lose them. They’d get crinkled up. It was when I suddenly realized I had a notes app on my phone right in front of me all the time that I could literally mumble into that I started writing everything down. That’s the best advice I know how to give. Everything else is up to the person. Again, it’s sort of like marriage advice. It’s so personal. That’s where I would start.

Zibby: Excellent. Jayson, thank you for sharing your family’s experience, your experience, your writing advice, and all the rest, and also your beautiful book that I’m just so glad did not stay just for you, as I mentioned before.

Jayson: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Now I can’t wait to read your novel, so keep cranking. Keep at it.

Jayson: That’s good to hear. Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Thanks for all your time.

Jayson: Thank you for reading it. I will.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Jayson: Buh-bye.