GriefINK: Tattoo as the Language of Grief

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The life of a writer is often at odds with the amount of self-promotion, marketing, and “look what I wrote!” that accompanies the job. Let’s face it: we writers can write lovely words that are filled with humility, but unless we spread the word, no one will read it, and the sound of crickets in the night will be our feedback. This complicated balance of writing something of weight and meaning, and “getting the word out” haunts me again as my second book, GriefINK, will be published in the next few weeks by RSBooks (Rod Serling Books). Perhaps more now than ever, I am struck with a sense of not wanting to promote myself, the writer, as much as I want to reach the bereaved with comforting words, break the stigma of tattoo, and offer GriefINK as a companioning tool in grief.

Before I plunge into the what, how, and why of GriefINK, I want to share the back-story of my transition from psychological fiction to non-fiction. After publishing Out of Breath in 2011, I had a bit of a dry spell of writing. At least three manuscripts got to be about 150 pages, each followed by my weeping over my laptop and proclaiming that it was all crap. It might not all be crap, but I felt little emotional connection.

I gave myself permission to take a break. In that time, I experienced a lot of transition in my own life, and like a tower of blocks that tips over, collapses to the floor, and then gets rebuilt, I took notice of life in a different way on the way back up. It was also during this time that my son got tattoos. His second tattoo, a prayer that has special meaning to me, scrolls across his back, and my attitude toward tattoos, their meaning, and the ink on one’s skin had me in awe.

I began to pay attention to others’ tattoos: their color, brilliance, and images. But more than anything, I began to ask what the story was behind the tattoo. A theme emerged: many people inked their skin in memory of a person, place, or experience. Their tattoos were a language of grief.

Late night thoughts swirled with research, and I scoured the Internet for articles on grief, bereavement, and tattoos. There was some, but not volumes, to be sure.

Next, I thought about all of those grief theories that were off-putting to me. You know the phrases like: “put it behind you”; “move forward”; “you’re holding on too much”. Many of these expressions are rooted in grief theories that encourage a break in the attachment, to move forward, and experience total acceptance of the loss. Try telling a mother whose 9-year-old son withered away from cancer to break her attachment, to move forward, and accept her loss! I’m all for continued mental health after tragedy, but isn’t there a different way to talk about the psychological health and change one goes through after a loss?

I dug into one of my favorite theories of grief: Continuing Bonds. To sum up several hundred pages, the continuing bonds theory of grief says that we continue our bond with our loved ones well after death; that this is healthy. We have an ongoing—albeit, changed— relationship with that person. Yes, our physical relationship has ceased, but a spiritual and psychological connection remains. This was a start…

Exactly one year ago, my photographer, Matt Molinari, and I interviewed over thirty people—many of them total strangers—and we were changed. I learned about grief, incorporating loss, the process of tattoo, and how ink invites others not only into one’s grief, but into the relationship and the person one is honoring. I was invited into sacred places and incredible relationships: a soldier named Jonathan honoring his troop and personal losses; Lois, a young mother memorializing her 9-year-old son; an elderly woman, Leona, who honors her sons on her shoulders.

“ We can never forget our sons. Therefore, it ’s important to always know that they’re still a part of our lives, even though physically their presence isn’t in the room. It’s okay to talk about them, tell stories, have some laughs, and remember what joy they brought to us for all of their 42 and 45 years. And this,” Leona says, patting her tattoos, “helps bring up the subject.”

Yes, I shed tears during the interviews, but my time with these people was not all sadness; it was beautiful, intimate, meaningful, electrifying, and holy.

I also spent a great deal of time talking with tattoo artists. Four, in particular, let me ask them about their own experiences in inking the bereaved, and their insights are also highlighted in GriefINK. Their compassion, empathy, artistic intuition, and insights touched me as well, and my perception of tattoo artists was expanded.

My point of writing GriefINK is not to have the bereaved race out and get tattooed; that’s a very individual decision. Nor is GriefINK a way of exploiting the losses of others. GriefINK brings people together through peering into the heart of us as a people; how we love deeply; how we grieve; how we heal; how someone continues to be a part of our life long after death. It opens up our souls to share deep connections, and teaches us that death and loss are not taboo. When we speak about our losses, we breathe life into one another.

GriefINK will be available soon on Amazon in both paper and electronic versions. The images and narratives will change the way you view tattoo, grief, and our ongoing connections.