Loss is universal. At some point we will all lose someone important to us; it is often a painful and transformative part of being human. It may seem curious to willfully add physical pain to the pain of grief, but that’s exactly what a growing number of people are doing when they get memorial tattoos.
Dr. Jennifer Buckle has been studying grief and loss for most of her career as a psychologist and over time she has seen an increase in personal acts of remembrance as an aspect of the way people grieve. “Acts of remembrance are becoming more personalized. An increasing number of people are choosing to recognize their loss with very individualized memorials, such as tattoos,” said Dr. Buckle.
In collaboration with her colleague Dr. Sonya Corbin Dwyer, Dr. Buckle undertook a qualitative study of memorial tattoos. They interviewed people about their decisions and processes of getting a memorial tattoo and found that the tattoos, and the experiences of getting a memorial tattoo, are as varied as the people who get them.
The tattoo images were wide-ranging and included portraits, symbols, phrases and dates. The location of the tattoo was also an important aspect, illustrating the interplay between the public and private nature of grief and loss and the level of control that participants wished to have in sharing their loss. For some, a memorial tattoo, frequently in a visible location, was related to how open they were to sharing their grief experiences and talking about their deceased loved ones. A common secondary loss after the death of a loved one is that people don’t talk about the deceased anymore. A visible tattoo can start that conversation.
There were commonalities in the experiences and meanings associated with these tattoos. This was evident during a photography exhibition where the initial findings of the study were shared with the public. Images of the participants’ tattoos were displayed along with anonymous quotes about their grief experiences and the meaning behind the tattoos. Surprisingly, some participants were not certain which quote was theirs.
Through their research, Drs. Buckle and Corbin Dwyer aim to gain a deeper understanding of the grief process, building on academic knowledge and theory that can then be applied to enhance knowledge and provide support to people dealing with grief as a result of bereavement.
They also plan to broaden their research to include “loss tattoos” that honour all kinds of relationship losses such as separation and divorce. Future research will also include the tattoo artist’s experience in the process of designing and inking loss tattoos.