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Sometimes our words are not up to the task of fully engaging with what has befallen other people. In those moments, it often seems the best we can do is fall back on inadequate placeholders that hint at, but don’t truly describe, a traumatic event. The phrase “unimaginable tragedy,” for example, is frequently intoned as a substitute for all of the things we cannot find the words to say.
But the truth is we can, in fact, imagine a whole range of tragedies. What is more difficult is to imagine what it feels like to the people who have directly experienced a specific tragedy.
Jennifer Ohman-Rodriguez, who lives and works in Eastern Iowa, lost her husband of 21 years to drowning while on a family vacation. In the aftermath, she began writing in a journal. Over time, that journal formed the basis for the book “A Time to Mourn and a Time to Dance: A Love Story of Grief, Trauma, Healing, and Faith.”
From the very beginning, Ohman-Rodriguez came face to face with both the inadequacy and the necessity of words in a time of trauma.
“The seeds of the book really come out of my very early journal entries just in the weeks and first months after Tony died,” she said in a phone interview. “And, of course, I’m feeling really disconnected from my thinking self and my body and from others. That is a typical trauma response. My journal entries, they’re not full sentences. They’re just sort of these bombastic bits of human emotion. It’s not a regular thing, it’s not daily, it’s just when I’ve got to get it out — things I don’t want to share with anyone else.”
Ohman-Rodriguez knows a lot about responses to trauma and how to help others in the face of various challenges. Her late husband Anthony Rodriguez was a mental health therapist specializing in trauma recovery. She worked in the early care and education field for two decades and recently graduated from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., with a Master of Divinity degree. Recently she served as vicar at St. Andrew Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Cedar Rapids. Having knowledge and experience doesn’t immunize a person from the effects of personal trauma, however.
Four months after Tony’s death, Ohman-Rodriguez posted a short blog (jenniferohmanrodriguez.com) about closing her husband’s office.
“I don’t even remember why I needed to do that. It just felt it was time,” she wrote.
Steve Semken of Ice Cube Press read that piece and the next time he ran into Ohman-Rodriguez, he had a clear message for her. He encouraged her to write more fully about her experiences. He would bring it up each time he saw her.
“I waffled and I waffled because it felt to make this public on my blog or even public to myself more thoroughly in my journal felt like some sort of betrayal of the experience. It is a deeply, deeply private experience … But (Steve’s) pushing opened a floodgate. I couldn’t stop.”
She would get up very early and “write and write,” sometimes for up to three hours.
“At first it was just anything or everything. It was the entire experience. It was memories of our life together. It was just everything. At a certain point, I realized it was a book. I understood it was book. But that probably took six to nine months for me to understand that.”
Once she did, she needed some help. Area writer Misty Urban (author, most recently, of “My Day as Regan Forrester”) worked through the pages upon pages of writing and helped find the thread.
“She really helped me understand the storyline. I was living the storyline. I couldn’t see it,” Ohman-Rodriguez said.
Another local writer, Lori Erickson, whose own work explores the intersection of travel and spirituality, stepped in to help Ohman-Rodriguez find a literary agent. That agent, Kate Sheehan Roach, placed the developing book with Chalice Press, a Christian publisher.
Throughout the process, most of those helping Ohman-Rodriguez shape the book were on board with its unusual style. “A Time to Mourn & A Time to Dance” is written in fragmentary language true to her experience. Copy editors at Chalice Press were not initially sure this was the way to go.
This paragraph, which addresses her growing need to write about her grief, serves as a representative sample of the prose:
“Take solace. In our bed each morning. Working through word swirls. Uncover emotions and memories once dormant. Dive into depths finding truths as treasures whether they be beautiful or painful. Not believing I didn’t see or couldn’t comprehend necessity of writing in beginning. Output growing, if not toward sun then just out into world. Sputtering forward from soul. Giving me something on which to hang my heavy heart. Tracking this time so different from other times. Documenting some elemental truths, mine. Others.”
Copy editors might have had their doubts, but Ohman-Rodriguez was confident this was the right approach for telling her story.
“I was — and I still am — very clear: There’s no other way to show what we’re like in trauma, in the aftermath of trauma. The brain, the frontal lobe, is disconnected to everything else. It is very hard to read, it’s very hard to put words together. And so I wanted to show that … I was very opinionated about this. I still am … I wasn’t ever going to back down from that … That was a very conscious choice on my part from the get-go.”
This is how Ohman-Rodriguez addresses the inadequacy of language as a way to investigate trauma — she leans into that inadequacy. And somehow, doing so remakes the very limitations of language into a tool for revealing the essence of things. The result is a heart-rending, powerful, hopeful book that often feels revelatory.
What she hopes readers will take away from her book, is our commonality as humans and our ability to recover from the most difficult experiences of our lives.
“First of all, our responses are fully human. While what happened was unnecessary and could have been prevented, our responses to what happened to us are fully human,” she said. “And that we are part of a greater group of humans who have experienced one-time or ongoing trauma and that this experience is healable. We can heal from trauma. We can recover. And that for me, my journey through it, in which I cannot always think about spiritual practice, faith, God, that somehow that’s in there for me and I just have to trust it.
“I don’t even have to trust it. I can allow other people to trust it,” she said. “I would like people to come away having read a testament to this experience, this very human experience, of sudden grief, trauma recovery, and how faith just sort of weaves in and out of that — on its own terms, not on mine.”