Tag Archives: #tattooedbygrief


Another key to understanding the uniqueness of grief in youth are the many physical changes they are going through just being teens. Their bodies are changing radically. For some it is hard for their wardrobes to keep up. When their bodies ache from the physical changes and the heart aches from loss, life can be overwhelming. They may already be moody and grief intensifies that.

They need adults who are willing:coffee 1

  • to come alongside them,
  • spend time with them,
  • listen to them, and listen some more
  • assure them that they are feeling is normal
  •  It is important for them to know they have support and what they are experiencing is normal. For them these feelings may seem to last forever, but being reminded that it is temporary is important.  Just like growing pains, the grief will subside. They will heal. This is temporary, long and drawn our but temporary none the less.

        “Even though I wrote quite a bit in my journal I wish I had written more. I’m having hard days      helps to read my words and see how far I’ve come since that day” Katie age 15

Making journals is a good hands on expression of their grief, honoring the loved one they lost. Use an inexpensive composition book and cover it with a collage with their own drawings or pictures, phrases, and words cut from magazines that remind them of their loved ones.

This journal becomes a safe place to write their thoughts, poems, stories, and draw pictures of what they are feeling at a given time during their grief journeys. Then they can go back to these journals and see their progress over time. The outside of the journal represents not only how unique their loved ones were but also their own uniqueness.

Excerpt from Tattooed By Grief by Cari Zorno



grieving teen   Personality types respond differently under the stress of grief. Extroverts who are stressed tend to pull inward and become uncharacteristically quiet. A person who is sullen and detached might be an extrovert under stress. Introverts who are stressed tend to “lash out” or “freak out.” A person who is animated and speaking out may be an introvert experiencing stress. (Schneider and Prudhomme, 2014).

When teens experience the death of a close friend, this death may be felt as deeply as and sometimes even more deeply than the death of a family member. Youth often spend more time with their peers, making those relationships extremely close. Each relationship is unique, so we cannot expect grief to be the same for all. Grief doesn’t make sense; sometimes a grieving teen may feel disconnected, like a third party watching from a distance or the mind may go into hyper-drive yet be unable to connect the thoughts.

While everyone will walk through sorrow in different ways and at varying speeds and depths of feeling, the important focus is to go through it, not around it by avoiding or numbing the feelings through self-medication of drugs or alcohol.

Feelings need to get expressed somehow. Expression of those feelings may take the form of written, drawn, or spoken words, but for some the feelings need to be put into action. This can be done with dance, hiking, running, just to name a few. Grief that is not expressed cannot heal. Bottled up or buried grief may manifest in anger or bitterness, which can be harmful to the hurting teen and to others. Teens need to be encouraged to be bold enough to share their feelings in a way most comfortable for them.

“No one understands!”

?????????????????????????????????????          We who have spent any time with teens have heard the words “No one understands!” Most of us have even said it, but in the instance of grief, those words have a reverberating ring of truth. No one does understand. Grieving the death of a grandparent or a pet is done at a different level than grieving the death of an immediate family member or close friend.

            “Friends my age didn’t know what to say. Some related the experience to losing a family pet, which made me mad. Other people would tell me I needed to move on because it happened a long time ago. Of course, my family and people who knew my brother John, like his girlfriend, would pray for me and could understand my feelings.” Ashley, age 11

One item we all need to grasp is NO ONE fully understands, not friends, not parents, not counselors, and not even those who have also experienced the death of that same loved one. No one understands because each teen is unique, and the relationship with the deceased was unique; therefore, the grief is unique.

BUT those who have experienced loss “get it.” They get that the sadness is deep and dark, and it casts a dense cloud over life. They also “get” that grief needs a relief valve of times of activity, fresh air, and laughter. They get that it will last longer than anyone wants, and it can wait in hiding and ambush the teen when he or she least expects it and finds “goodbyes” need to be said all over again. Just because the grieving teen laughs does not mean he or she is “over it” or “ready to move on.” No one understands, but the grieving need to know there are others around who “get it.”

Excerpt from Tattooed by Grief  by Cari Zorno


The Hole

Being 13 when my friend Jack died, I was unprepared; I had no tools or coping skills on my side. So, I went to Cari. She gave me ideas like singing, writing letters, to express what I felt and then move on with my day. Overall, those feelings were so intense and overpowering that the best way to deal with them was to feel them. Not to ignore them, run from them, hide from them, because they would get me no matter where I was. It was just best to feel them in the moment; I would allow myself time to grieve and then move on with my day.” Jocelyn, age 13 at time of death      

hole photo

Death leaves a hole, a huge gaping hole, in the teen’s life. This hole may be evidenced by the empty chair; at the dinner table, the lunch table or in the classroom. Our culture tells us to replace the loss, remove or fill the empty chair, and “move on.” God says to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). What the grieving teen needs is for someone to encourage them to embrace the loss and walk through the grief, not run away from or around it. Jesus wept with Mary and Martha at Lazarus’ tomb. As comforters you are to weep with the teen, listen to them, walk with him or her through the dark places, and help identify if those places are too dark or too long and professional help is needed.

The death of a close loved one is similar to an amputation. A part of them is gone, never to return. The pain is stabbing and sometimes incapacitating. Slowly healing takes place, and the wound is fitted with a prosthetic in order to move forward with life. At first the prosthetic rubs and chaffs, but it conforms and becomes usable. Over time and with work, the wounded teen adapts to the way life is now and moves forward. But one thing is for certain: the amputee never forgets he or she once had two hands and two feet. Eventually the grieving too learns how to adapt and is able to move forward.

The first step in walking with grieving teens is developing a relationship, getting close, and showing them that we care. Taking time away from our busy lives to just sit over a cup of coffee or shoot hoops makes great strides in this direction. Getting to know them, really know them, is a lost art. We know many people but don’t really know them. When comforting grieving teens, ask gentle probing questions, which may look like idle talk but have direction. Find out their favorite color, snack food, movie genre, and sport. This is the first step in knowing what to do for them on those tough days, which we will discuss later. No one cares how much we know until they know how much we care.


It doesn’t matter if the death is a grandparent, aunt, uncle, parent, child, sibling, or a friend, society does not usually prepare us for loss. If you are prepared, you are grave stone photoamong the few. In decades past, when a loved one neared death, he or she was taken into the family home until the time came. There was time to seek and give forgiveness, say final goodbyes, and extend love. This is rarely done anymore.

I feel that death in present day America has been white washed. When grandparents age to the point of needing constant care, they are frequently placed in assisted living, then into nursing homes. We seldom face death as a family and even more rarely experience grieving as a family. Less and less we have the older generation teaching the younger generations how to grieve by example.

This has left us in a desolate place without mentors, unaware of what constitutes healthy grieving, and unsure where to find the answers.

For most teens the deaths they experience are sudden. They hang out with friends after chemistry class on Friday only to be faced with an empty stool in lab on Monday. No closure, lots of regrets, and few answers. Where do they turn for help? Most often they turn to adult and peer friends. We need to be ready and equipped to handle the complexity of their grief needs.

When the death is sudden, the lack of experience in adolescence is amplified. When I was thrown into grief, the only prior grief I had walked through was the death of pets. Suddenly I not only needed to learn how to grieve for myself, but I also felt a burden to teach by example how to grieve to my surviving children, their friends, as well as my deceased children’s friends. I began to devour books on grief written by those who have been there.

Photo by Talusss

Photo by Talusss

“NO! It can’t be true!” The Shock of Death

pain photo Grief is a common experience. It is not only an emotional experience of tears, sadness, and emptiness but a physical one as well manifesting in forgetfulness, restlessness, and exhaustion. Teens don’t have the coping skills that adults have acquired, and the brain is not fully formed until they are 24-26 years old. Keep that in mind when I use the term “teen.”  In Tattooed by Grief  I am specifically addressing the grief of an 11-24 year old after the death of a loved one or close friend.

Experiencing the death of a loved one struck me straight between the eyes and laid me flat. Nowhere in my education was I offered Grief 101. I was unprepared, without a clue as to how to grieve, how long it would take before I could move forward, which feelings were okay and which were not. I thought I was going crazy. I didn’t know where to turn for answers either. I found myself alone on a desolate island; the silence was deafening, the loneliness paralyzing, even though I was surrounded by the busyness of life.

The vast majority of people will experience the death of a loved one before they die. I don’t know about you, but I do not remember a single death of a classmate from K-12. Currently there are teens in my two local high schools that have tattooed dates on their arms of friends–yes, that is plural friends–who have died. Mind you, I live in a rural area, not a crowded city. There is a need to bring God’s healing and hope into their lives. It is time for parents, youth leaders, and friends to come alongside teens to bring the hope and healing of Christ into their lives. It is time we learn what is “normal” in grief.  This is why I have written this book.

Meaning Behind the Art – 3

tattoo by Laely ear          Grief introduces heart pain at an entirely new level. The finality of death carves out a huge hole in the heart that can physically ache. Just as loss of a close loved one tattoos grief on the heart, some teens choose to display it as body art. Both tattoos and grief are permanent. Yes, they both may hidden, but both become part of the teen’s identity and leave a lasting mark. Both have a story to tell.  Grief changes people, a tattoo can mark that change.

  “My emotional world changed forever last summer. Now, my body has changed forever, too. I wear my tattoos proudly, symbols of my mom’s pain, of the strength she had to muster, of the catharsis I sought in the first year I’ve spent without her.” Cara.

“Getting memorial tattoos is often a ritual. We know about the importance of rituals in grief work. Many folks go to the tattoo parlor with friends or family which builds the sense of community. Just as grief hurts, getting a tattoo is physically painful. In time grief softens but it is always a part of you. Tattoos itch and burn as they heal. The skin softens. The healing of the tattoo is a process just like grief. And when a tattoo is healed, it becomes a part of you.  The tattoo is a symbol of the continuing bond the bereaved has with the deceased.  The deceased not only lives on in the griever’s heart but also on their skin.

            Memorials tattoos can play an important part in the grief process. They open up the conversation to telling the story. Tattoos mark the change that has occurred, give voice to the loss and help maintain a continuing bond.”  Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Bereavement Center Blog. By Dscowan. June 10, 2013 Hospice of the Western Reserve

The tattoo of grief holds deep meaning, it becomes part of the identity, and it will soften over time and is permanent, though the intense feelings are temporary. Just as the grief itself holds deep meaning, and though permanent, its intensity fades into part of the art of who the teen is and will be for the rest of their lives.

Meaning Behind the Art – 2

Tattoo - Chris Kramer  I wanted to hear other teens’ stories and how they kept their       memories alive. These teens are my experts. They experienced grief firsthand, giving me an insider’s look at teen grief. After hearing a dozen stories, I started seeing a common thread. Many of the grieving teens had gotten tattoos in memory of the loved one who had died.
As I researched tattoos, I learned that 36% of 18-26 year olds have at least one tattoo (StatisticBrain.com/tattoo-statistics 2013). That number astounded me; it means over 1/3 of the young adults we come in contact with each day have at least one tattoo, at least one. Tattoos seem to cross all cultural lines. This means rich kids and poor kids, boys and girls, city and rural kids.  Why? What is the pull? I believe some of the reason is  remembering an important event. Many of those tattoos are memorials. Memorials of loved ones who have died, periods of their lives which are now past, places or people they had to leave behind, memorials. The pain in getting a tattoo is miniscule compared to the pain of grief they were walking through.
“All my tattoos are memories.” John, age 24
Grief tattoos itself onto a teen’s heart, searing its mark into his or her very being. For a teen the mark is deep, partially due to a teenager’s typical unfamiliarity with traumatic events, their still developing brain, hormone flux, and partly due to a teen’s lack of coping mechanisms. The way a death brings life to a standstill is in sharp contrast to the normal busyness of their lives.
Tattoos are personal; they become a part of a teen’s identity. The story behind a tattoo is invisible to the person who passes by on the street. Even for the basketball stars who have body art covering their entire bodies, the meaning is “invisible” to the spectators because it is the player’s story, their memories in art. Tattoos become a part of someone’s identity like’ Birdman’ Chris Anderson who plays for the Miami Heat basketball team. His tattoos have become part of his identity.
Most people with tattoos enjoy telling the stories that inspired them. Some people get tattoos so that people will ask about them; they want to tell their stories, though sadly most people won’t take the time to listen.




Meaning behind the ART

tattoo - Chelsea           Amie stood quietly in my kitchen as I visited with her friend   Chelsea. Chelsea had stopped by to drop something off on their way to enjoy a weekend of camping. It was a warm day for the mountains of Colorado, so seeing girls in tank tops and shorts was not out of the ordinary. What was out of the ordinary was the beautiful body art Amie had that draped over the top of her left shoulder: the face of a fox, a colorful bird, and the face of a woman interwoven with many smaller designs.

I just had to comment: “Amie, your tattoo is beautiful,” I said.

“It is my life journey,” was her subdued reply.

Now I was really curious, but she brought the conversation to a quick end: “It is rather long and we don’t have time right now.” She glanced at Chelsea and smiled gently, trying to nudge her friend to wrap up the conversation. I got the hint, but it made me think, I bet most tattoos do have stories behind them.

After my children’s deaths, I have worked at keeping in touch with my kids’ friends, and some of them have put forth the effort to keep up with me. About a year ago I began hearing about tattoos these kids were getting, and I began to ask them about their tattoos. “It helps me remember that there is always hope,” Chelsea told me in explanation of her “HOPE” tattoo on the inside of her wrist… to be continued…