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More Than Skin Deep: Unique Designs Connect Grieving Parents Across Miles

The author Michael Biondi once wrote, “Our bodies were printed as blank pages to be filled with the ink of our hearts.” Tattoos are becoming increasingly more commonplace. From dolphins to dragons and butterflies, these popular tattoos and others like them often mark key milestones and achievements. Sometimes they are spontaneous and done for fun. Other times they take on a much more significant meaning. Regardless of the context, each image tells a story. For KinderMourn’s first virtual Grieving Parent Seminar, the unlikely topic of tattoos has helped forge deep connections and provide an avenue towards healing among parents who have never even met in person.

Since January, the group of 10, which includes three couples, have been connecting virtually every Wednesday evening. One couple joins from as far away as Minnesota, and another father joins in from Greensboro. Michelle, the KinderMourn counselor leading the group, initiated their meetings more as an educational seminar, recognizing that the virtual platform came with limitations. But as the parents started talking about tattoos, the dynamics shifted in the best way possible.

Mark and Kris, a couple from Minnesota whose son Coy died last August, were the first to open up about how getting a tattoo of a koi fish had contributed to their healing process. Mark shared, “Coy and I loved to fish together, and a koi fish was the last tattoo he got, so this felt like the perfect way for all of us to remember him.” Their story provided encouragement for others in the group, including Melisa, who recently got a thumbprint tattoo in memory of her son Sean, who died in October at the age of nine.

Inspired by the other parents, Debbie recently took a giant leap and got her first tattoo in honor of her son Alex who died last December. While she was nervous, she drew encouragement from the group, “We are all in different places on our grief journey, but we all seem to have bonded.” Her tattoo also includes her son’s thumbprint, located inside a multi-color butterfly with the words “Life Goes On” beneath the image. After getting the tattoo, Debbie immediately emailed the group to tell them the news and share how her daughter had spotted a four-leaf clover when they were leaving the tattoo parlor that she saw as a “gift from Alex.”

Tami, whose son Jonathan died last August on his 30th birthday, had the tattoo artist replicate Jonathan’s message from a card he had given to her on Mother’s Day. “Tattoos tell stories. While mine is not a beautiful picture that tells a story, it is words that I can forever look down on.” Located on the underside of her arm, the tattoo inscribes Jonathan’s writing, “We Love You,” followed by his and his son Brantley’s signatures. “When I first meet people, I see them looking down at my arm, and I know they are probably wondering, what in the world?” she says. “But it doesn’t bother me because it gives me a chance to talk about him.”

Speaking out about tattoos brings up a lot of emotion for one father because he always told his son Alton he would get a tattoo with him, but he never got that chance. If he decides to get one to honor his son, he knows he has the support of this group. And while Emily, whose son Gabriel died in 2012, and Sean and Jennifer, whose daughter Hope died four years ago, don’t have tattoos, they treasure the deep connections that have come from sharing and supporting each other through the group. “I’ve been helped by other’s grief processes even though all our losses are unique,” Sean said. “I feel like I’m a crew member on a one-of-a-kind ship christened to explore known but treacherous waters.”

Tattoos have a way of reminding us what we’ve been through. Much like their grief, for these parents, tattoos represent a deeply personal journey, with some further along in the process, while others just beginning. Yet something as everyday and mainstream as the topic of tattoos has provided an opportunity for a different type of shared connection, enabling these parents to articulate their grief in a way that isn’t quite as intimidating. And in the sharing of these beautiful, deeply personal images, they are reminded of the steadfast love they will always have for their children, just as permanent as the images themselves.

Thank you to Elizabeth Bennett for capturing their stories.

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