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  • Writer's pictureCindy Kaufman

Memorial Tattoos as Expressions of Grief

I didn’t get it, until I got it. I’m talking about tattoos here, specifically memorial tattoos. Before I go on, let me make a disclaimer that I am not judging anyone else on their decisions about tattoos of any kind for any reason. I am sharing my experience and my decision process. Everyone is free to be themselves without judgment from me, just as I would expect no judgment in return.

Never have I ever...

I never saw the point of tattoos for me. I never found a reason to permanently ink my skin with anything for any reason, not with some symbol or piece of artwork, or drawing of a character, not with someone’s name, or for any purpose whatsoever. I never had anything that meant so much to me that I wanted it drawn on my body for the rest of my life. And I never saw my body as a canvas for art or statements or anything else.

I am a woman in my 60s and…never have I ever…had a tattoo…until now. I never got it before…the whole tattoo thing…until I got it. It took the deaths of both of my parents…traumatic deaths within five weeks of one another…and the compounded grief, the major losses, the deep darkness, the heavy mourning that ensued…for me to even consider that a tattoo might become part of my expression of grief, part of a permanent expression of love for my parents. Even more than that, that a tattoo could become part of my learning how to incorporate the reality of their losses into my life, a life that must go forth without the love of my parents.

Nestor and Donna Aguero, aka my parents, aka Papa and Nana

How will I survive this?

As the one year anniversaries of my parents’ deaths approached, my anxiety was crippling. I didn’t know how I had survived the year, truly, and I didn’t know if I could survive the dates of their thanaversaries (“thana” meaning death combined with anniversary becomes thanaversary). The thought of those days scared me. I had been seeing a therapist for months for my grief. I had been in several grief support groups and even an equine-facilitated grief group. I had been doing acupuncture every week for my grief. I had been going to massage therapy every two weeks to help move the grief from my body. I had physical pain that I had never experienced before. It was the grief I was carrying in my cells and tissues of my body. All of these therapies were wonderful support for me and were by and large the reason I had gotten as far as I had (well, all that and just focusing on one breath, one step at a time), but the thought of getting to those two dates…4/4/23 and 5/11/23…was paralyzing.

Light bulb moment...

And then one day, when I was thinking about what I could do on those days to make them not so hard to face, I had an idea. Tattoos. Seriously, tattoos. My daughters and I had discussed earlier in the year that we should all get tattoos in honor of my parents/their grandparents, but I couldn’t see it, just as I had never been able to see it for myself before. Then, in January as I fretted about how I would approach those days, the thought came to me. Tattoos. Seriously, tattoos.

On those days that I was deeply dreading, I would schedule myself to have a tattoo on 4/4/23 for my dad and another on 5/11/23 for my mom. I would choose a symbol of something meaningful between me and my dad and between me and my mom, and on their first thanaversaries, I would get memorial tattoos to mark those dates.

Papa walking the beach looking for shark's teeth.

Symbols of love, life, and memories made together...

That was it. Once I had this thought, it seemed like it was exactly what I was supposed to do, and I went with it. I reached out to my daughters to invite them to join me. One accepted the invitation. I began researching artists near me. I found an artist whose work I liked. I reached out and explained what my daughter and I wanted to do and the specific days on which we needed to do it. If he couldn’t accommodate those dates for us, we would have to look for someone else because it HAD to be done on those days. He agreed and scheduled us for 4/4/23 and 5/11/23. Jason Hansen of Faith Tattoo in Golden, CO, gets a big shoutout. He does beautiful work and is a wonderful human being!

Mom at the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, CO

April 4, 2023

For my dad, my daughter and I chose to get the same symbol, that of a shark’s tooth, placed above the ankle. Our favorites times spent with him, and our favorite memories made, were walking along the beach with him searching for shark’s teeth. We gave our artist a couple of ideas of what we wanted and he created a beautiful design.

May 11, 2023

For my mom, my daughter and I chose butterflies, but with separate designs and placements.

I chose a butterfly because my mom loved butterflies. I had it placed on my left forearm so that I could see it every day. I chose the left arm because my mom was left-handed, the only lefty in my immediate family. One of the things that made her a unique. Also, I added the words “love you more” because every time I said to her, “I love you mom,” she replied with, “I love you more.”

The healing properties of a memorial tattoo

Memorial tattoos can be done for any reason, in honor of someone who died, a memory of something that happened, or an experience one had, or a place traveled to. When done in memory of someone who died, they hold tremendous healing properties, as I have personally discovered. Every day I have a visual reminder of the love I had for my parents and they for me. The symbols chosen are familiar reminders of the people they were and the memories of times shared together. These memorial tattoos help maintain the bond we had together. When I look at them, or touch them, I am immediately carried away to a memory of a time together or of a feeling of the love we shared. They are not painful or pain-producing to me in anyway. Well, unless you count the actual getting of the tattoos. They were a little painful, but worth it for the end result!

These tattoos are also great conversation starters that allow me to talk about my parents whenever someone comments on them. I get to tell others about my parents. I get to keep their memories alive and share them with people who never knew them, introducing them to new people, carrying on the legacy they left behind.

They are also reminders to me that while life is impermanent, death and grief, like the ink, are permanent. Grief is not something to be cured or gotten over. It is not something that will one day go away. I am learning how to live my life with the immense amount of grief I now have as a part of my life, a part of who I now am. And no, I am not the same person I was before their deaths. Loss like this changes a person. It changed me. My grief is life long and will always be present…just like my tattoos. They have become the external representation of my internal journey with loss and grief, and a symbol of the love and memories of two people I loved most in this world, and who loved me beautifully in return.

If you want to know what my parents would have said about my memorial tattoos, my dad would have said, "you didn't have to do that, but I like that shark's tooth!" My mom would have said, "Honey, it's beautiful, just like you! Love you more!"

The Aguero's visit to see us in Colorado!

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