She was there when he was dying. She knew death, and she had found us, as though summoned from the ether by my horror. She possessed me, body and soul, while I screamed, as he was passing away in my arms.
She came and went mysteriously, after that. In the early days, her arrival was usually unannounced and overpowering, as though she would suddenly fly up behind me and suffocate my soul. There was nowhere to hide; she found me everywhere – in the street, at work, in the banal moments of the day, in the midst of joyful moments, even in my sleep.
These days, her power grows the strongest between my late husband’s birthday and the anniversary of his death, during a period of about six weeks, while the trees are ablaze, the sky is dreary, and the part of the world I live in grows cold and dormant. While I’m driving to work, when I’m in the shower, while I’m trying to maintain my composure giving presentations, singing songs with my toddler – all I can hear is the scream that is begging to pass through my lips.
I have a banshee hanging around me. This year she came a month early, around Labor Day while we still had the pool open and were sporting our tank tops. She made it hard to swallow the sweet tomatoes we picked in the garden, for the lump in my throat, while we wiped our brows under the delightful sun. My feet felt heavy during our strolls at night, I didn’t have much appetite for the ice creams we shared, in the lingering dog days of summer. She choked my laughter and blew the color from my face. She was ruining everything I enjoy. Every year when these anniversaries return so close to each other, it’s almost as if he will be celebrating his life and then die all over again. He does and is, in my memories that are associated with these seasons. I still feel so helpless, trying to stop his death in my mind and soul, grappling furiously with all the decisions that led to that moment, still trying to find the turning point that could have put us back on course. I feel mortally wounded, myself. I feel absolutely cut down and feckless. And all these years later, I still want to just scream and scream and scream, for days, and weeks… and months.
This year my banshee is so constantly distracting that I reached out to my old support group asking for suggestions, fearing that I was nearing a nervous breakdown. So present is my grief that, even in the midst of a joyful and beautiful life, I feel like I may accidentally scream at any moment. That scream in me feels almost like the irresistible, unstoppable tickle of a sneeze that threatens to explode at any second. And I’m afraid that once I start, I won’t be able to stop. God forbid it happen in front of my toddler. God forbid it happen at work! God forbid it happen at all. What to do?
A friend from the group, Val Blair, reiki healer and general grief genius, responded that she identified with this, with the feeling of being torn apart by the screams inside, by the rage and the sadness, and the lingering fear of abandonment. She suggested the metaphor of the “banshee,” taking it a step further to suggest that I identify her, name her, even draw her, to get a good look at her. Once identified, objectified, I could talk to her, hear what she needed to tell me about her grief and confusion, even comfort her. Until then, all I was doing was holding on to her voice, and her anger. Val said that her conversations and work with this banshee took a month to process out, but in the end her banshee was quieted, and she wasn’t alone anymore. Now, when Val feels the banshee stir, she asks her, “what do you need to feel safe?” She addresses her and validates her right away instead of trying to stifle her. And they take it from there.
“Alright,” I thought, “so I’ll have the Banshee for tea.”
She didn’t waste a moment. Immediately she told me that she needed the space to be, and do her thing. I’ve been working very full days, six days a week, leaving no time or energy to sing, mostly due to the scramble it takes just to find singing work, in an eroding industry. The flourishing market that I trained for in my college days is all but down a drain, now that I’m at what should have been the peak of my career. I have three degrees I’m not using. In addition to not having time for what was an excellent outlet, I don’t have time for a big part of myself; opera singing wasn’t just a vocation I chose – it was my identity. Anyone who may have inadvertently fixed part of the definition of themselves on something of this world may also know what this feels like, because the world is changing – especially those things of the world which have been affected by the explosion of technology, and the uphill slug since the stock market crash in 2006. My identity at age 30 lay securely in my career and my husband, and both are gone now, leaving part of me cut away and blank – and there isn’t time to sit with that, because I need to hustle just to pay the bills, since I’m basically an unskilled worker, outside of my degrees. I don’t mind hard work at all, but I didn’t realize I would also need to make time to deal with the daily grief. Even during the moments at home, when the banshee has practically politely asked me to allow her to be, I decline, because I don’t want to cheat my partner and baby of the role I play for them, a role that is just as necessary as those I play at work. I’m afraid of traumatizing my child, or making my partner feel inadequate or worried, or tired of the sadness with me, because I can’t get myself together. The hole is so big that sometimes the ends of me just won’t meet, no matter how I tug, and it makes me feel unlovable and paranoid. [Identifying with this? Oprah.com published an eye-opening article about the changing times and what it means for Gen-X women.] I realized that, in order to give the banshee the space she needed, I was going to have to schedule it, dammit.
I meditate deeply every night before bed, and I do lighter meditative exercises on the commute that book-ends my days at work, to try to keep the shape of the person I want to be, to keep calm under the pressures and frustrations of the day. It has saved my life, making the hard times so much more manageable. But even these light daily practices aren’t big enough for PTSD, depression, and grief, when they are at their worst. I realized I needed to make a little hole in time for myself and the banshee to crawl into together, and hash it out. After all, she’s around, as real as rain, and it does no one any good to deny it.
So. At night, after the baby is asleep, I’ll be taking 30 minutes to myself in the other room with the door closed, thinking, meditating, praying, stretching, crying. Hanging out with my banshee until she’s ready to move on. And if you see me go by in traffic with all the windows up, mouth open wide and clearly screaming my face off, well… you get it. We can laugh together at this sonofagun that is grief, because what else can we do, other than, well, scream? ♦