The Purgatory That Comes After Losing a Child

When his 2-year-old daughter died, Jayson Greene turned to writing to survive his grief, and to Dante’s Inferno for words to describe it.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Jayson Greene, the author of Once More We Saw Stars, lost his 2-year-old daughter, Greta, on an ordinary day, while she sat on a city bench with her grandmother. It goes against every instinct that a brick, falling from the eighth story of a crumbling Manhattan building, could end the incandescent life of a child. But that’s the gutting fact of it. It happened, against all sense.

“I imagine it’s the same for all new parents: You slowly learn to believe in your child’s ongoing existence. Their future begins to take shape in your mind,” Greene writes. “[But] what happens to this sense when your child is swiftly killed by a runaway piece of your everyday environment, at the exact moment you had given up thinking that something could take all of this away at any moment? What lesson do your nerve endings learn?”

Greene’s memoir grapples with this lesson: the ruinous insight that the world can wound loved ones at random and for no reason. The book charts how, in the 15 months between Greta’s death and the birth of their second child, he and his wife survived overwhelming grief to find a path toward a new normal: a happiness brave enough to accept life’s constant dangers and complex enough to coexist with sorrow.

In a conversation for this series, Greene described how a passage from Dante’s Inferno inspired the book’s title, and how his work as a music critic helped him with the challenge of articulating unspeakable sadness and joy. A contributing writer and former senior editor at Pitchfork, Greene’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, and other publications. He spoke with me by phone.

Jayson Greene: I’d spent the year after Greta passed writing, and at that point I’d already published an op-ed called “Children Don’t Always Live” for The New York Times—the first time I’d written about Greta publicly. I was ready to put together a book proposal, and my agent had said, “You know, you really need to have a title of some kind.” That started the ball rolling in my head. For me, the process of trying to find a title was really a way of asking myself what the ultimate meaning of the story should be. It meant finding a way to distinguish between what the story meant to me, in my life, and what the story would mean to others as I told it.

I don’t mean to say it’s two different stories. They’re the same story. But when we tell stories, we step outside our lives in a way that’s not possible when we’re actually going through something. Part of storytelling means examining things as if it weren’t you at the center—and that distance, which you could basically call perspective, is part of the therapy. Coming up with the title was the moment where I had to make that shift. I had to ask myself, Why am I telling this story to other people?

At first, I kept thinking about the word between. That 15-month period of our lives, the time between Greta’s passing and Harrison’s birth, felt profoundly between two things, so I kept trying to make a title there. But nothing stuck, in part because I couldn’t think of anything that felt resonant or that I liked the sound of. On the one hand, I was thinking about this overwhelming, emotional topic, and on the other, I was like, “Oh, that would look terrible on a book jacket.” It was both processes happening at once.

One day my wife, Stacy, and I were talking about that period of our lives, and we agreed that it felt like a kind of purgatory. It was then that I thought about The Divine Comedy for the first time.

I hadn’t read The Divine Comedy since I was a freshman in college. And I hadn’t read Inferno since my first semester, when I was massively idiotic. I could not have been less prepared to soak up anything profound from the text, other than that there were monsters in it, and at the bottom there was a frozen lake, and that it was pretty gnarly that the dog ate the people’s heads. If you had offered me $500 to tell you the last lines of the Inferno, I would not have made $500.

I first thought the title might be some kind of play on “in a dark wood,” the setting where Dante famously finds himself in crisis as the book begins. But there was already a book called In a Dark, Dark Wood. So I picked up our copy of [Robert] Pinsky’s translation of Inferno, which we had in our home and never opened, while Stacy started looking for quotes on Goodreads. We both knew the answer was in there somewhere.

At one point, Stacy suggested that if the “dark wood” section was the very beginning of the Inferno, then maybe we should look at the very end. It goes like this:

To get back up to the shining world from there
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel;

And following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I—so far,
Through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.

At that point in the book, Virgil the poet has led Dante all the way down through every circle of hell to the very bottom, where Lucifer sits in a frozen lake. He has seen every manner of horror. But as they are crawling through the passageway on their way out, they finally see the literal light at the end of the tunnel—the “shining world” beyond hell, waiting for them at the end of the round aperture. When my wife read those last words, “we came forth, and once more saw the stars,” that was it. We’d found it. It was like a telegram had been sent to us.

In the last moment of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil haven’t actually escaped the underworld yet. They are only being afforded a glimpse of what ultimate beauty might feel and look like. That image somehow exactly captures where our lives were, and where, in some ways, our lives still are and may always remain. Maybe people are only ever afforded keyhole glimpses into the “beautiful things that Heaven bears”—and never all of them, but merely “some” of them. Whatever the word heaven might mean to you, that longing is part of the universal condition; Stacy and I are just experiencing it acutely through the loss of a child.

I loved that I’d lifted this little pebble out of Dante’s Inferno, which became like this little talisman that I carried around. But, more significant, I felt the word we had to be in the title. When my daughter died, I could not have felt more alone in the universe. I felt like I was the only person who really saw the Earth for what it was—this barren landscape. But I was not alone. One thing I learned about grief is that it can either blast you apart or pull you together. In our case, it pulled us so tightly together, just as a survival mechanism. That became the overwhelming theme that carried me through. This story involves my mother-in-law and her trauma, and Stacy’s family trauma, and my parents, and everyone around us, and Greta, and our son Harrison, too. The only way to write the book was to tell the story of how all of us pulled together to get through it.

It’s hard for me to say if my work as a music critic helped prepare me for the challenge of writing this book. It’s true that the critics I most admire are people who can accurately describe the sensations that works of art stir in you, which are by nature ineffable. When you write about art, you’re writing about something that has moved you, and you’re left struggling to describe it. That is in some ways the basic act of criticism—applying the analytical mind to the wordless realm of emotion.

With visual art, at least you can use words that describe physical things. You can describe the color of the paint, or the texture. There’s a concrete language that everyone more or less agrees on. The same with film: It’s happening in a big room, and you can see it up there on the screen. But music is so much harder to describe, in part because it unfolds in the head. You find yourself flailing in a directionless space, with no clear idea what to refer to. Music writing is lamentably easy to make fun of, and it’s hell to edit, for that reason. But do it for long enough, and you start to find your coordinates. In all those years of writing music criticism, I probably did absorb some larger lesson that I wasn’t paying attention to. Maybe that lesson had to do with how to describe something that is only happening inside of you, something that feels like you could never convey it to anyone.

At the same time, it’s very hard to say exactly what skills I used to write this book. After Greta died, I threw everything I had at the task of surviving. Getting through that period was like putting water on a burning building. When I look back at the writing, I ask myself—What did I do? What tools did I use? But the answer is that I was just trying to survive. I used whatever I had. That includes every resource I’ve ever brought to bear.

I don’t want to make it sound as if I was having an ecstatic vision, like some sort of 12th-century mystic, but the book does feel like an artifact to me—something external to me that was created during a period of unbearable grief and pain. I had a story to excavate out of myself, something that I had to tell to live. It was like performing a sort of surgery. It was so tied up in the instinctive process of grieving that sometimes it’s hard for me to see it clearly now.

I don’t want to create from that kind of grief ever again. There was this unbearable clarity to so much of what we experienced, the kind that comes when your body is fighting off some kind of terrible illness. You’re never more engaged with the act of living than when you’re trying not to die. So I’m relieved to find that after the fight, your body can go back to a state of lesser attention—of not trying to utilize every resource you have, just to exist.

That return to mundanity is joyful. That’s the reason I write about those moments with Greta when she would wake up at 4:30 in the morning, and I’d sneak her out of the apartment because everyone was sleeping, and nothing would be open. Those moments became holy after she left, small as they were, because they were the moments that contained the ultimate.