Inking the bond: Memorial tattoos connect us to those who have died

Death doesn't end a relationship - it transforms it

WARNING: This story contains sensitive subject matter, including suicide, that could be triggering for some readers.

Susan Cadell (BA ’85) is a grief and bereavement researcher and social work professor based at University of Waterloo’s Renison University College.

Susan CadellThere are so many stories behind the tattoos of the people I interviewed during a research project on grief. There is the mother whose son died. She said: “I would have a piece of him with me, the only piece I could have with me.”

There was a woman who got tattoos to memorialize her sister who died by suicide: “I feel like she is closer to me and that I never lost her because I have it on me. She won’t fade away because she’s still there.”

Another woman had a rose to honour her father because he always brought roses to her and her mother. A couple, whose adult son died by suicide, had tattoos on their forearms for their son. The placement allowed them to show them off and engage people in conversations about suicide prevention.

Our oldest participant was in his 80s and had gotten his first tattoo in his 70s. He considered memorial tattoos as a way to honour those you love for life.

When memorial tattoos “just felt right”

bird tattooMy interest in tattoos began with simple curiosity while volunteering as a grief group facilitator for Bereaved Families of Ontario (BFO). I must confess that I don’t have any tattoos but I am a social work researcher with a particular interest in grief. During my time at BFO, I heard people talking about their tattoos and they would say things like they never thought they’d ever get a tattoo but somehow after the death of a loved one, “it just felt right.”

I was intrigued enough by their comments to talk to my friend, colleague and fellow Waterloo alumnus Melissa Reid Lambert (BA ’11), who does have tattoos and is the mother of Flynn, who died. We wondered what people would say about the tattoos they got to memorialize someone who had died and what those tattoos would look like.

We set out to interview maybe 15 people but almost immediately we had more than 50 volunteers. Clearly, people want to tell their stories. In the end, we interviewed 42 people, documented all their memorial tattoos and did a couple of sessions with a professional photographer. People talked to us about their tattoos for their friends, parents, grandparents, children and partners. We had as many people in their 50s and 60s as those in their 20s, defying the idea that only young people get tattoos.

Death does not end a relationship: it transforms it. This is the concept of continuing bonds.

Our understanding of grief has evolved past stages and tasks into a more complex notion of connection. People who are grieving oscillate between focusing on the loss and on restoration. Death does not end a relationship: it transforms it. This is the concept of continuing bonds.

fish tattoo

Tattoos challenge stigma of grief

Melissa and I were surprised when we realized we were not always hearing about the death of the person during our interviews. The tattoos tell stories in images about the person who died and express the connection the tattoo wearer feels to them. Some parents of young children who die have tattoos that connect the deceased child to their siblings.

Sometimes we did hear about how the person died and it was connected to the tattoo. Several people had tattoos for people who had died of an overdose. They educated others about harm reduction and overdose prevention.

Memorial tattoos express connection and challenge the stigma of grief. Leaving the last word to a participant: “I love when people ask me about my tattoos because it educates the next person.” 

Tattoos tell stories in images about the person and express a connection that endures beyond death.

If you are in crisis, feeling unsafe or worried you may hurt yourself, call 911. Anyone across Canada can also reach out for help through the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 or