“A tattoo helped heal my grief after a miscarriage”
31st October 2022

Written by Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.

After years of recurrent miscarriage, writer Amy Swales found solace in marking her losses with a tattoo.

When my husband and I were in the thick of two years of recurrent miscarriage – from 2015 to 2017 – navigating and even recognising the grief of baby loss was a steep learning curve. But there were some things we felt instinctively weren’t for us.

Just as I knew I wasn’t comfortable referring to our five losses as ‘angel babies’, I was equally certain that naming stars or planting trees for them wasn’t for us, despite the solace others clearly found in such acts. For me, doing something symbolic just didn’t feel… useful. Talking and writing about our experiences? That helped enormously. Buying a heart-shaped keepsake? While it certainly works for others, it just didn’t feel right for me.

So when my counsellor recently suggested an exercise involving placing a ribbon in a box for each miscarriage, my first instinct was to recoil; no thank you, that is very much Not Me. But as we continued to talk, I was surprised at how suddenly emotional I felt about giving each loss – all different, all painful – its due.

I realised that, despite all the words I’ve sent out into the world, something in me did want to mark them in some other way. And while I was not quite on board with the ribbons, as someone with several inkings, I alighted on the idea of getting a new tattoo.

People choose tattoos for various forms of loss – the death of a person or pet, miscarriage, limb loss, mastectomy – and psychotherapist and counsellor Jessica Mitchell says this kind of symbolic action can help people feel connected to both what it is they have lost and their own feelings about it.

“In bereavement projects, we make memory boxes. Or with kids, we make wands with ribbons representing memories: red if they went to Liverpool matches together, yellow for sunny days. It’s a visual representation, somehow summing up what this person meant to them.

“It can connect you to feelings that are beyond words. Talking, sometimes, yes, it helps, but there is also something about creative or non-word-based things that can be quite powerful in summing up feelings or connecting your own self to how you’re feeling.”

The thing about a loss is that it’s final and therefore often the idea of ‘healing’ doesn’t apply in the sense of finding a solution to that – as Mitchell explains, it’s more about finding out how to live with it.

“I think of bereavement as a rip in the narrative of somebody’s life. You have to make sense of your own story and incorporate your losses in moving forward. And sometimes a symbolic act – like the tattoos and the memory boxes – help to do that.

“We talk about ‘continuing bonds’ in bereavement, so when somebody dies or you lose a pregnancy, they’ve gone, but your relationship does not end; you will always remember. And what can really frighten people is the idea of: ‘How will I keep this person and all they meant to me alive in my life?’ A tattoo and these other acts say, ‘You know what? This is deeply meaningful to me and I’m staying connected to it.’”

That idea of the tattoo plainly stating ‘this is meaningful’ strikes a chord with me. My other tattoos, on the whole, weren’t intended to mean anything – I simply chose or designed things I liked; things that make me smile, such as the dragon on my thigh (a character from the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away) and something I can only describe as a winged panda on my side, inspired by a design I stumbled across online and thought was fun. I do have one for the baby we had after the miscarriages: a Fab ice lolly with his initials on the stick (it’s a Fab for no other reason than I love them). 

Now it occurs to me that a tattoo can also be an indelible way of saying that my loss – each loss – affected me. Sure, I’ve said it in articles and interviews and talks; I’ve regularly and loudly banged the drum for miscarriage to be taken seriously, but something in me still tries to say I am not entitled to call this grief. That my loss does not deserve a memorial.

Pregnancy loss is common and can severely impact those who go through it, with recent research revealing a significant number of people experience long-term post-traumatic stress, moderate to severe anxiety and/or moderate to severe depression.

However, as with many health issues filed under ‘women’s stuff’, it’s long been an area sorely in need of further research and wider general understanding. Feelings of guilt, shame and isolation are extremely common, because when others don’t know much about the physical and emotional impact, it’s easy to undermine, ignore or gloss over what you’re experiencing. The lack of open discussion and routine support (both in medical settings and the workplace) contributes to the taboo.

While there have been encouraging steps of late, such as the government’s pledge to introduce official baby loss certificates, miscarriage is often disenfranchised grief, and I think the ‘cringe’ factor is part of this – caring too much about others thinking I’m going over the top or looking for attention. I suspect nobody would bat an eye that I have my son’s initials on my back, but a tattoo for pregnancies that never went past 12 weeks?

Worrying about the opinions of others is also part of a bigger picture in a society where many of us absorb the idea that displaying ‘too much’ emotion is a bit, well, embarrassing. When girls are characterised as drama queens and boys are told to man up, there can be shame in revealing strong feelings, especially in a way that’s perceived as ‘wrong’ or ‘cringeworthy’ or for something others don’t think warrants it, like early pregnancy loss or the death of a pet.

So many of us downplay our natural reactions, which is something I certainly did with the miscarriages to begin with, and perhaps to a certain extent with other things too, such as dialling down pride over a promotion or diluting compliments with a joke.

As Mitchell says: “People come to me saying, ‘I know I’m making a big deal over nothing and others have it worse…’.” A lot of the work is validating feelings. How you feel is how you feel; you don’t have to apologise or say that it could have been worse. You’ve had a loss that is incredibly significant to you. And that is what matters.

“The message that has come through from a really young age, for so many people, is basically that it’s not all right to have your feelings. It’s just so common across the board and so much of therapy is saying, ‘No, it’s OK, you are allowed.’

“I think there is a lot of shame around the very act of having feelings. People like to say something like: ‘I was having a really hard time and I was sad. But I’m better now.’ And you wrap it all up. The tattoo and other forms [of symbolic action] are saying ‘I’m going off that rationalist rail; I’m recognising different sides of myself that are soft and vulnerable, and I’m having uncontrollable feelings that don’t get wrapped up neatly.”

It makes a lot of sense to me. We’ve been through something significant and traumatic, and if others think a tattoo is corny, who cares? Whatever works for you, works for you; there is no normal. In my case, I now know I’ll mark our experience with a design from another Ghibli film, My Neighbour Totoro. While I chose this initially simply because I’m fond of the movie, it also happens to be very apt. There’s love, comfort and cosiness in my memories of watching it (with my partner at university, with my children now) and in the film itself, among other things, it highlights uncomplicated joy, the importance of our links and bonds with others and our interactions with the world. It seems to fit. Plus, it also just makes me happy.

When I think about it, my other tattoos probably do tell a story anyway. The gecko; a ‘flash’ straight from the parlour’s wall that was bought by friends chipping in for my 17th birthday (leftover cash then bought fake ID and a double Baileys); the one down my side was outlined in Beijing, where we lived for a while and coloured in London when we moved back; the dragon was when I turned 30; the Fab ice lolly after my son. They’re all bits of my life, and the next – five little Chibi Totoros running amok, one for each of our miscarriages – will be too.

Images: Getty

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