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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