Making grief visible: When tattoos help cope with the loss of a loved one

Posted by Jamie Kan on

Increasing acceptance of memorial tattoos has more people getting body art to honour loved ones who have died. 

Life has been a roller-coaster of ups and downs for Arlene Last-Kolb since her 24-year-old son passed away, and not a day goes by without thoughts of Jessie.
For the last few years, though, Jessie has been permanently "with her," after she decided to get a tattoo in his honour. "When you lose your child, you lose your feelings, so the tattoo reminded me that I can feel," she says.
The pain of grief, a process almost everybody goes through, is sometimes unspeakable and we all have our own way of dealing with it. For some, getting a tattoo representing a family member, a friend or even a pet is a crucial part of that process.
CBC/Radio-Canada gathered stories of mourning Manitobans like Last-Kolb in the first weeks of the pandemic, before public health measures were instated, to understand the meaning behind their body art and the growing acceptance of memorial tattoos.
On a warm evening in July 2014, Last-Kolb's life turned upside down when Jessie died of a fentanyl overdose. Her son's death is an ordeal that follows her everywhere: in her everyday life, such as when she paints for fun; in her activism, as she fights for more effective support for people suffering from addiction; even when she's simply doing a puzzle at home with her husband, John, and a reporter meets her for the first time.
"Jessie was a good boy, funny and extremely smart," Last-Kolb says.
"That's just the way Jessie was. He saw a young boy on the Osborne Bridge who was going to be getting jacked [robbed]. He stopped his truck and went out to help him," she said.
Grieving will always be part of Last-Kolb's life. One way to overcome this obstacle has been getting a memorial tattoo, she says. A tattoo in his memory covers Last-Kolb's forearm. Jeremy Blaze, the artist who drew it, knew her son very well and had tattooed him in the past. "The tattoo represents who he was, a little bit about the tattoos he had on himself," Last-Kolb says.
Tattoos were important in Jessie's life, she says. The night he died, he was going to get a new one. The memorial tattoos make her feel closer to her son.

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