“What an idiotic thing – to deface your own body,” an uncle said after I got my first tattoo. He wasn’t interested in the story behind it. Like many people, he’s one that goes through life without checking his assumptions and, as a result, often misses the opportunity to see beauty in unexpected places.

Contrary to popular opinion, most tattoos are not butterflies in the small of a woman’s back or skulls and crossbones on men’s shoulders. Recent reports describe the most common tattoo now as tribal, connecting to natural scenes and animals that depict inner strength, spirituality, or protection. Personally, I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t have a thoughtful and compelling story behind the permanent mark their body unveils. In fact, I get pretty excited when I see the opportunity to ask.

Once there was tears. I was sitting with a group of young widows who were sharing thoughts and activities that honored their husbands. Some talked about living for their children, others about relationships with in-laws, others about the trial of getting out of bed and not giving up. The last woman who shared that day raised her hand and pointed to the inside of her wrist: “This is stage one of my memorial tattoo. Around his name will be a hummingbird, reminding me of the calmest, happiest moments in our marriage. I need that to remember him in the way I want to.”

She then went on to talk about the flack received from her family, which I assume many of us have heard:

It’s not very professional; people won’t take you seriously.

Are you sure you’ll want his name on you forever? What if you meet someone else?

Is it really worth hundreds of dollars?

My widow friend didn’t have the answers at that point; she just knew in her heart that the symbol chosen and its location were important and “right.”

Many years have passed since that night, yet I still think about her story and those questions from time to time. Five years after receiving my second memorial tattoo, I’d like to share some possible answers to those pressing inquiries from family and friends.

First, people who seek memorial tattoos commonly make them small. They do not want to be stereotyped and are not looking for a reaction from outsiders because the symbol is personal and emotional. Most think extensively about visibility for not only a professional environment, but also a warm climate. Example: I am one of many who possess a leg tattoo just high enough to be covered by summer shorts. This gives me the freedom to dress as I choose in any season AND reveal my tattoo only if I wish to share the story.

That said, even if someone chooses a place that cannot be covered, the cultural expectation that corporate environments will be dismissive is quickly fading. According to a 2013 Forbes article entitled “Tattoos No Longer A Kiss of Death in the Workplace,” establishing a diverse, skilled, creative group of thinkers is most people’s top priority. Bank of America’s Spokeswoman Ferris Morrison states: “We have no formal policy about tattoos because we value our differences and recognize that diversity and inclusion are good for our business and make our company stronger.”


Second, since people who said vows always intended to be together forever, they are not worried about changing their minds and needing laser removal of their spouse’s name. This situation is a far cry from the 18-year-old girl getting her boyfriend’s name in the hope that their love will last. Further, I believe I can speak for most widow(er)s when I assert that they would rather be alone than stay with a new partner who does not understand (1) the importance of grieving and honoring their partner, (2) how affected one is and always will be – to an extent – after their spouse dies, and (3) the thoughtful stories they need to share.


I know that my new husband is not bothered by my tattoo for James. Not only does he say it’s beautiful, he reminds me whenever I’m feeling broken that he loves the woman I am today. That my past and my decisions made me who I am, and that I’m far stronger than I know.


My tattoo for James is actually about my decision to have hope. On his three-year “angelversary,” I marked the occasion with a message – one I learned during the grief process. Surrounding his initials lay two pink roses: the type we displayed and wore at our wedding. The top rose is large and in full bloom, signifying the full, beautiful life that I was privileged to lead with James. Representation through a flower felt so appropriate, as nature reminds me that nothing lasts forever. (Or maybe it just doesn’t hold the same form forever. Minnesotans see this every year in winter and spring, as our gardens wither and freeze in November, then shoot up with new life in April.) The second rose in my tattoo is smaller and still blossoming, representing hope for another life of happiness. Happiness did not mean another married life, but a life I was proud to lead: One filled with purpose instead of fear, gratitude instead of envy, life instead of death.

Finally, in relation to the dollars a tattoo requires, many can be completed for the same price as one month’s phone bill. My first tattoo, a memorial for a special aunt, was $50.00. It is a small black symbol that represents her parting wisdom to me about finding balance and not working my life away. That reminder has been an invaluable guide over the years. We all have freedom to choose how we live and pay our bills, and there are far worse things that people, who are often struggling to find a reason to keep going after their person dies, can spend their money on.

I cherish my tattoos, as they are signs of love and healing that will always be with me. They can’t be broken, lost or changed; they are just a simple reminder of the beautiful people who’ve left a deep mark in and on me.

Connect with the author online at http://michellejarvie.com

Michelle Jarvie

Michelle Jarvie is an author, educator, and mentor from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She began her career in mediation and business analysis after obtaining a master’s in public policy. Within two years of graduation, she married and lost her husband, James, to a motor vehicle crash. While searching for hope and coping mechanisms, Michelle quit her job, learned how to remodel a house, and sought trauma and grief counseling. Sixteen months after her loss, she started volunteering to read with two fifth grade girls who desperately needed a dependable, caring adult in their lives. As a result of this opportunity, Michelle decided to pursue a teaching license in English education. Since graduation in 2011, she has been teaching creative writing, writers’ workshop, and global literature courses at the high school level. She also regularly speaks to large and small groups of teenagers about grief, depression, and moving forward (not “moving on”). She loves to bring in Star Trek stories and quotes about grief to supplement her own. Michelle remarried in June 2013 and, with her new husband Sean, is expecting her first child in February 2015. They love to travel leisurely, stop for great food, and philosophize about changing the world.

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