Kitchener-Waterloo

Memorial tattoos part of grief process, says Waterloo prof

When she was leading a support group a few years ago, University of Waterloo researcher and social worker Susan Cadell noticed that many in the group were getting tattoos to memorialize their lost loved one. Now, she's looking into how those tattoos fit into the process of grief.

After speaking to people about their tattoos, Susan Cadell says each image tells a rich story

Over the past year, social worker and researcher Susan Cadell has been interviewing people about their memorial tattoos. (Submitted by: Susan Cadell)

When Susan Cadell was leading a grief support group a few years ago, something caught the social worker's eye: tattoos. 

Cadell told CBC K-W that many in the group were getting tattoos to memorialize their lost loved one. She said even people who had never considered getting a tattoo before were now getting inked. 

"They would say, 'I never thought I'd get a tattoo, but this just seemed right,' " Cadell recalled.

As a social worker and a researcher with Renison University College at the University of Waterloo, that piqued her interest. She said she wanted to understand how these tattoos fit into the larger process of grief. 

Changing relationship

"We used to think in kind of a Freudian way that the job of grief was detaching from the person who died," she said. 

Now, she said there's another growing understanding of grief that sees the process as forging a new relationship with the person who has passed on. 

It's important that we are — in certain circumstances — that we're asking about tattoos that memorialize people and pets and losses.- Susan Cadell

To understand how tattoos fit into that process, Cadell and her colleagues have spent the past year interviewing people about their memorial tattoos. 

She said the stories are as varied as the images, but the reasons why people get memorial tattoos do seem to support the newer understanding of grief. 

Susan Cadell says that each memorial tattoo tells a rich story and counsellors ought to be asking about them. (Submitted by: Susan Cadell)

Stories are rich

For example, Cadell recalls one story of a woman who got a tattoo in remembrance of one of her children who had died. 

Her other children asked her why she didn't have tattoos for them, and Cadell said this mother told her living children that they were always with her, but her dead child was not. The tattoo was a way of keeping that child close.

"The stories are rich and very different from just seeing the image," she said. "So, I think it's important that we are — in certain circumstances — that we're asking about tattoos that memorialize people and pets and losses."

Cadell has one more year to finish her research, and said she plans on doing more interviews with people who have had memorial tattoos. 

She also plans to create a website, where people can upload their own memorial tattoos and stories.

Corrections

  • An earlier headline on this story said Susan Cadell was a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. In fact she is a professor at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo
    Aug 27, 2018 12:32 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Melanie Ferrier is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in Kitchener, Ont. You can email her at melanie.ferrier@cbc.ca.

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