Grief and Tattoos

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams

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We have been thinking a lot about grief and tattoos lately, though neither Eleanor nor I actually have grief tattoos. Welcome to my friend Cara Detwiler, who does know a little something about grief and tattoos. Cara is a fourth-grade teacher, dog-lover, and singer in a band. Thanks to Cara for sharing her grief tattoo story with us!

Pain is the body’s way of letting you know that something is wrong. When my mom was suffering from endometrial cancer last summer, before we knew she was dying, I told her how proud I was of her, for going through the pain and excruciating humiliation that comes with gynecological cancers. I told her that when she got through all of it, I would get a tattoo to show solidarity. She had liked that idea. This conversation was in August, and by September, she was gone.

​I am not covered in tattoos. Prior to this conversation, I had exactly one, an apple just six inches to the left of being a tramp stamp that I got myself for my 25th birthday, seven years ago. When my mom died, my feelings felt completely trapped. I had to hold it together, to be strong for my family, to be strong for Mom‘s friends, to get up every morning, to go to work, to go for a run, to be productive and vital despite my grief. But the pain was still palpably suffocating me. I got my next tattoo. . .the one I had promised my mom. . . Two weeks after her memorial service. I had an angel tattooed behind my ear. Did it hurt? I don’t know. Does anything hurt after you’ve lost the most important person in your life? Was there pain? Yes. And in that pain was a deep-rooted pleasure. Finally, there was a release. The tattoo needle right near my ear was loud enough that I couldn’t hear anything around me while the artist was working. It was just me. . .on my own. . .meditating on the idea that through these 15 minutes of pain I was unified with my mom.

In April, I got another tattoo. This one wraps around my rib cage and is a line that helps me when I feel desperate or lonesome. “Love is for the courageous.” Love isn’t tender, or frilly, or superfluous. Love is brave because loss is inevitable. This tattoo was considerably more painful and took a considerably longer amount of time. But each time I see that message wrapped around me from heart to spine, I feel connected to my loss, rather than suppressive toward it.

​My emotional world changed forever last summer. Now, my body has changed forever, too. I wear my tattoos proudly, symbols of my mom’s pain, of the strength she had to muster, of the catharsis I sought in the first year I’ve spent without her.

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24 Comments on "Grief and Tattoos"

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  1. Pete Rudez  May 13, 2022 at 11:59 am Reply

    I lost my wife of 30yrs, on new years eve. I got my tattoo on my inner forearm to remind me to live (she made me promise) and it is just lettering ” Memento Vivere”

  2. Blain Mrs J  December 3, 2021 at 4:20 pm Reply

    My son took his own life in January 2021. I was very close with him and although he didn’t see live with me and his brother Charlie we saw each other most days. I got this tattoo a few months after his passing. It totally sums up my feelings every day.

  3. Dawn  December 2, 2021 at 10:21 am Reply

    I have a number of grief tattoos, for my daughter. I did not feel them either. 18 years later I added more for my husband, did not feel those either. I am sorry I cannot share them they are too personal for me I mean too much. And they helpe me keep sane.

  4. Alyssa Villegas  February 10, 2020 at 4:50 pm Reply

    I lost my 6 month old son julian jesus Garcia-Villegas due to alot of health issues was the saddest day of my life February 6 ,2019 my body is still very numb and my heart is still in thousands of pieces to not wake up to my little boy my life would never be the same without my son but I have to be strong for my 2 year old son and my angel and my husband and my myself because I dont want my health to get bad

  5. ednkaren01  June 17, 2018 at 6:53 pm Reply

    I lost my wife 9 months ago. I always wanted a tattoo but I was scared of the pain. My wife had one to cover her C-section. I always wanted to do something special for her but always too much of a chicken. After she passed, I got an infinity tattoo with her name on it. The pain was there because it was on my back and to my left shoulder. After I got it, I felt the pain helped me cope more with her loss. So a week after that I got an angel signifying where I hope she is. I do not know if I have gotten addicted to the pain in order to cope with the loss because I got another one on my back and I have 3 more coming this week. I like the results of the tattoo and how it makes me feel about myself and coping with my wife loss.

  6. Jane  June 16, 2018 at 7:51 am Reply

    I’ve been thinking of getting a memorial tattoo for my boyfriend. We lost him suddenly and it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. We had an amazing relationship. He was the one person I could truly be myself with. My puzzle piece. He was an amazing Guitarist and Singer songwriter. He wrote me 2 songs (one for every year we’ve been together) and was working on the third. He had also started teaching me how to play guitar. I’ve been thinking about getting two music notes and a heart on my wrist. The thought popped into my mind ever since he passed, and I just can’t stop thinking about it. I usually don’t care what people think but what happens if/when I find a new boyfriend one day? What will they think? If they are understanding and supportive then it shouldn’t be a problem right? And if they do have a problem with it then I probably shouldnt be with them? Idk but I can’t stop thinking about getting this tattoo…

  7. Sandi  May 19, 2016 at 12:39 am Reply

    I lost my husband 3-1/2 years ago very unexpectedly, I month after our 20th anniversary…I had 3 tattoos before he died and right after he died someone sent me a quote that said
    One step at a time,
    One foot in front of the other,
    I will get through this,
    One way or another.
    And I knew that I needed to get this tattooed right away before his memorial service, and I knew that not only would those words help remind me everyday that I could get thru this but that it could help me get through anything tough in life. So I tattooed it on the inside of my right wrist also knowing that someday I would add something to those wrords I just didn’t know what exactly at the time, well over the next year the idea started hitting me and I started designing a full sleeve memorial tattoo, on the first anniversary of his death I started the tattoo with a great artist who was able to take the ideas in my head and did beautiful artwork that tells a story about his life before and after his death, it includes a wonderful picture of his actual motorcycle with an amazing angel that my artist drew riding his bike and it goes thru windy roads thru the clouds into heaven and crosses a rainbow bridge that turns into a rainbow road that leads to a tattoo of our dog that we rescued and had for 16 years who passed a few years before my husband. And it also includes a green donor ribbon with the donate life symbol in the middle because he was an organ donor and helped save the lives of 6 people with his donations, and it includes his handwriting inside of a heart that I found in an old greeting card that he had written to me that he loved me forever…some people have told me that I was crazy to even think of getting a memorial tatto that big and that pertained to him because it would hamper me ever finding love again (I was only 45 when I lost him) because guys won’t want to look at that everyday reminding them that I loved someone else, my answer to that was then if someone can’t handle a tattoo like that then they are not the right person for me because I spent 20 years with that person and I will never stop loving them, it’s not like it was a divorce and a reminder of something not good in my life… So if a new guy can’t accept that a part of my heart will always love my husband and that won’t go away, but that I still have enough love to give another then he just isn’t the right person for me anyway and that if the tattoo scares him away then so be it. I haven’t found the right guy yet but I also have gotten nothing but great words about the tattoo once it was complete and people love it when I explain the story to them they say that’s the greatest story they have ever heard about a tattoo.

  8. Tiffany Lynn  July 8, 2015 at 1:55 pm Reply

    When my fiancee was alive we had alot of ideas for tattoos for me to get. In November of 2014 he was killed in a car accident. Pretty shortly after his accident I had a few new ideas floating in my head. One was to find the word “Promise” in his hand writing and get it tattooed on my pinky, as pinky promises were a big deal to us. But I couldn’t find it in all of his writings. I ended up getting his hand writing on my right wrist. I had struggled with self harm for many years and this tattoo served two purposes. A daily reminder of his love for me, and If I were to hurt myself, I’d have to ruin the tattoo in order to do so.

    • Ms. Micheal Hodge  July 9, 2015 at 4:44 am Reply

      Cara, I’m so sorry for your loss. I really love your tattoo! I know that I cherish every little bit of everything that my little brother left behind. I framed a sticky note he wrote to me which said “Talk to you later Sis! Don’t be a wimp! :-P. “) Take care Cara! 😀

  9. Ms. M  June 16, 2015 at 8:24 am Reply

    My little brother was my best friend. We were only 13 months apart so we did just about everything together growing up. Just before his 26 birthday he died in an auto accident. My brother had a lot of tattoos. Most from his time in the military. So a yr after he passed I got my first tattoo on my right outside calf. It has his name Guy, a pansy flower (full color) and Isaiah 40:31. It’s 5 inches tall and 3 wide. I am so glad I was able to have this permanent reminder of my best friend.

    • Litsa  June 22, 2015 at 10:30 pm Reply

      Ah, sounds like a beautiful tribute to him!! Thanks for sharing.

      • Ms. Micheal  June 23, 2015 at 4:49 am

        Thank you Litsa. I really like your blog! 😀

      • BK  March 27, 2021 at 8:26 pm

        I lost a man I loved very much who’s life philosophy was that everything we have is an extravagant, unearned gift from an unconditionally loving God… I have a small tattoo of the word “gift” in his handwriting on my chest, and when I see it I’m reminded how grateful I am for the gift he was to me and me to him, and who I want to be for others because of it.

  10. Rose  June 13, 2015 at 6:50 am Reply

    I have tattoo of weeping angel with my son’s name with year he was born and year he died on my right upper arm

  11. Doug  March 10, 2015 at 8:57 pm Reply

    I came across this article about 15 minutes after making an appointment for my third tattoo. I also never even considered getting a tattoo, but then I never considered losing my son either. Jesse had tattoos that he had designed himself, and I suddenly saw it as a way to connect to him. So now I have one on my arm that I designed with his name, birth and death years, around a broken heart, and a knife fork and spoon memorializing his trade as a chef, and the second is an armband that Jesse had designed and had worn on his forearm. The new one will be a half sleeve that shows grieving angels around fallen leaves, a cross and the words “Beloved Son”. So yeah tattoos can be a bit addicting, but I also want to feel the pain and I want to be scarred on the outside, just as I am on the inside.
    The tattoos that moved me the most tho, were shown to me by his co-workers a short time after his passing at an after hours “industry night” where restaurant employees get together after most restaurants have closed. Jesse hadn’t worked at Johnnies restaurant even a full year at the time of his death, yet 6 of his co-workers had an image of his favorite spoon and his initials tattooed on them. At that moment it really hit me how special he was to these people.
    So more ink on the way for me, and I know Jess would have loved it.

  12. muneebah  January 16, 2015 at 12:34 am Reply

    ever since the day my dad found out he was terminally ill, i knew the phrase i would use in my memorial tattoo, but now, still planning memorial, and dealing w extremely dysfunctional infighting n nonsense, i haven’t had the time to design it. i also haven’t had a new tatt in 20 years, so no idea o prices or how to fford it, lol. but it is the maya angelou snippet: ‘be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud’, with his initials and birth/passing dates underneath, because, especially in his later years, that is how my dad lived his life, and, even though i am extremely disabled, it is how i try to live my life.

  13. Joy  September 8, 2014 at 5:31 pm Reply

    I really like this post. Prior to my bereavement I would never have contemplated getting a tattoo. It has been something that I have fleetingly thought about lately. It appeals because of it’s permanence and how it might symbolise how my life has changed. I had not thought about the pain aspect and how this process might help me to feel connected. I do think it’s wise to think about it a bit more though beforehand. I also really like the idea of the pawprint from Angela. Thanks for the post.

  14. Angela  July 16, 2014 at 5:21 pm Reply

    My beloved Siamese died a few weeks ago. They took a paw print for me and I am thinking of having it tatooed on my side close to my heart. I have no other tatoos though and am worried I am doing one of those irrevocable things in the early stages of grief. I miss her immeasurably.

    • Eleanor  July 16, 2014 at 8:20 pm Reply

      Ahhh I’m so sorry Angela. I’m happy to hear they thought to take a paw print for you. We do usually advise against making irreversible decisions in the early days of grief. You may end up perfectly happy with the decision, but is it possible to mull it over for a week to be sure??

      BTW you didn’t ask but I thought I’d mention if you’re looking for any extra support on pet loss, Marty at the Grief Healing Blog has a lot of great information.

  15. JaylaWilliams  July 6, 2013 at 10:55 am Reply

    That’s my fourth grade teacher!!

    • Litsa  July 7, 2013 at 2:50 pm Reply

      Hi Jayla –you are lucky to have such a great fourth grade teacher!! =)

  16. Nick Frye  June 21, 2013 at 12:38 pm Reply

    My friend and roommate died in a house fire at the beginning of our Junior year at West Virginia University. On the one year anniversary of his death I had his initials “TMS” tattooed on my left tricep. Not a place I see too often in the mirror but when I do I get a great big smile on my face as I remember his smile and all the amazing times we had together in college.

    • Eleanor  June 22, 2013 at 10:01 am Reply

      Nick, I never knew that about your friend, I’m so sorry. What you say is really touching though, to have that constant reminder of him and his smile. I bet that’s one tattoo you’ll never regret.

      • Nick Frye  June 26, 2013 at 9:37 am

        Thanks, Eleanor. This was a really great post by Cara!

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