So pleased to have Susan Salluce as a guest on DyingWords. Susan is a thanatologist, or grief counsellor, and author of the best selling novel Out Of Breath. 

A4 PoemAfter a loss, individuals can find comfort in creative expressions of grief: creating a memory stone for the garden or yard; planting a tree in memory of the deceased; incorporating ashes into a piece of jewellery; writing poetry, and song.

In the past decade, another creative expression of grief has grown exponentially: Memorial Tattoos

A13 911Tattoo artists in the United States observe that a large majority of those coming in for tattoos are doing so to honor the death of a loved one, a pet, the end of a relationship, to honor a fallen soldier, or commemorate a tragedy, such as the loss of lives in the terror attack on the World Trade Center.

As a grief specialist, I have long been at dis-ease with grief theories that stress stages, closure, and the need to “move forward” after a loss. As someone who has witnessed and shared in a great deal of loss, I’m drawn to theories that understand grief as a change, not end, in a relationship, and that recognize an enduring connection with our loved ones who have died.

As I held this belief and observed a number of powerful memorial tattoos in friends and clients, it got me thinking.

A11 Grief TearWhat if the boom of memorial tattoos is an outward expression of an inner process—a language of grief—that gives voice to loss, continued connection, and the undying attachment to those in our life who have died?

This language allows people to tell their grief stories, share the enduring bond that continues well after death, and offer comfort to the living.

After combing through professional papers and articles online about memorial tattoos, I felt inspired to write Griefink, a non-fiction book about the inner experience and outer expression to grief through tattoo.

A14 FamiliesThrough social media, friends, support groups, and professionals in the field of psychology, I put out the word about this project last spring. With my wonderful photographer, Matt Molinari, we interviewed and photographed over thirty individuals.

They invited us into their homes, their lives, and into their deepest pain. The loss of a child from leukemia; a son’s suicide; a young woman who had a heart attack; a surfer who drowned are just a few of the stories expressed through memorial tattoo and shared in Griefink.

A9 TattooWith no expectations, I listened to each individual and learned more about grief, continued connection, and the relationship with lost loved ones than any book had taught me. Each person offered emotional, and often, beautiful descriptions of loss. They outlined the decision to get the memorial tattoo, how they found a tattoo artist, the way in which the tattoo was designed, and the process afterward. They confirmed that their tattoos leave the door open for people to ask about their loss; that the ink invites conversation, bringing the deceased into the living world.

Although all of these individuals feel a part of my life because of their vulnerability and transparency, a few left me breathless. One such story is Mia and Cade. Siblings only two years apart, Mia was a second mother to her brother Cade, who had autistic tendencies and received special education.

A2 - Prints“We went everywhere together. Cade taught you to not judge. He was an awesome, bright, and happy kid who taught you to love life,” Cade’s sister, Mia, said. “He loved to give people high fives and hugs.” Cade experienced a seizure in March of 2014. An MRI revealed a tumor in his skull. In an attempt to remove the tumor, Cade died.

Both Mia and her father, Chris, received a memorial tattoo of Cade’s handprint—Mia’s on her back, and Chris’s on the top of his hand—with Cade’s signature underneath.

Mia shared, “A lot of my friends remember that Cade would ask for a high five when he saw them, so when friends see me now, they high five his hand on my back. That feels good. Knowing I have his handprint with me wherever I go, I know Cade will always be with me.”

A1 HandprintsGriefink shows that grief reactions, which are etched in each tattoo, become the foundation for one’s loss narrative. Through tattoo, our bonds with those we have lost are strengthened through the permanency of ink. Additionally, the language of memorial tattoo blows apart the belief that there’s a time limit to mourning, thereby alleviating the notion that one must “get over” his or her loss. Through the tattoo, the invitation is open to continue talking about our loved one, the meaning that he or she had in our life, and how this individual continues to impact us.

*   *   *

A3 Susan SalluceSusan Salluce holds many things dear: family, friends, the beach, writing, and helping the bereaved. As a thanatologist, or grief specialist, she looks for stories that have many of those common elements. Her transition from being a therapist to a writer began with the question, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” Susan quickly answered, “I’d write a book.”

A16Susan is the author of Out of Breath, a psychological suspense novel about child loss, addiction, recovery, and the surf culture. It’s available on all e-readers and from Amazon at

Griefink is her second book, and will be released in fall of 2015. In addition, Susan will have a Griefink blog devoted to memorial tattoos in the spring of 2015.

If you have a memorial tattoo and you would like to share your story, images of the tattoo, and how this has impacted your grief, please email Susan at

Visit Susan’s website

Follower her on Twitter @SSalluce


  1. Cyd Madsen

    Susan, Gary, I LOVE this post and agree with every last word. In 2000, our family began a surreal tumble into what I can only call a pocket of chaos. Between then and 2003 our adopted son died suddenly, my nephew died, both of my husband’s parents died, our daughter’s best friend died, my two closest cousins died, my mother died and nearly the entire generation ahead of us died. Grieve? There was no time. Go through the stages? Which stage and for whom? My mother’s death was the last of the onslaught, and at the time it did feel as if something had finally come to rest. I got a tattoo, something graceful and elegant and put on a part of my body that would hurt. A Japanese symbol I was told meant “good grief” was put on the side of my knee. Ouch! But comforting in an odd way. I’m a potter and often work in shorts, apron and t-shirt in various studios. A few months after getting the tattoo, I was in a studio with a group of women from Japan who would look at me and giggle in a strangely polite way (how do they do that?). It turned out that my tattoo didn’t mean “good grief,” it meant “oh, sh*t!” It was the best laugh I’d had in a long time–my mother’s twisted sense of humor reminding me she was more than her death and to keep laughing. And it’s there forever–the best part of her.

    Since then, I’ve traveled the road of grief with a lot of friends and have not seen the stages play out in any way they’ve ever been presented. Thank you, Gary, for bringing this unknown treasure to my awareness. I will definitely email Susan with my profane tattoo, as well as buy the book she’s currently got out. Hey, born and raised in Santa Monica. We invented the surf culture 🙂

    1. Garry Rodgers Post author

      My God, Cyd. You never fail to impress me. I knew that you’d had some deaths in your family but I didn’t know it was this extensive. I really don’t know how you handled so much sh*t and ‘my condolences’ can’t even come close to paying my respect for those tough times.

      I hope Susan can include your story in her book ‘Grieflink’ and I’d love to see your sh**ty tattoo 🙂


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