How a Tattoo Helped Me Grieve My Divorce and the Loss of a Friend

POPSUGAR Photography / Candace Ganger Powell

I have a lot of tattoos – bats, skulls, ghosts, and hearts, to name a few – but one is particularly personal. It’s lyrics from a song called “Beautiful” wrapped around my wrist: “Can I have you? Can I be a part of you? Can I help you? Can I be all for you?”

I met the Dayton, OH, band who sang the original song in early 2004 during a night out in Indiana. After talking to them between sets, we hit it off. Before I knew it, I was driving to Ohio to watch them play, and sometimes to sing with them – I also sang and played guitar while pursuing a career in music. I originally bonded with the guitarist, but it wasn’t long before the singer became like a big brother to me. He made me a part of his family, inviting me to cookouts and birthday parties. Back then, he spoke of his pain through his songs, which is why we connected, but I had no idea how deep that pain ran until it was too late.

At their shows, the band introduced me to a lot of new friends, including the man I would marry. I didn’t know at the time the power that song would have, or all the ways it would change my life, but I knew I wanted those lyrics to be a part of me. So a few months after I officially moved from Indiana to Ohio, my soon-to-be husband took me to a tattoo shop to make them permanent.

After that, the words took on a life of their own. They weren’t only embedded in my skin for my love of the song. They came to represent a complicated mix of love, loss, hope, and old memories that both hurt and comfort me whenever I think of the life I lived and lost because of that song.

My husband and I spent 14 years together, 11 married, before he packed his bags and moved out. As I watched him drive away, I looked to my wrist. I got that tattoo with him. Those lyrics were a part of our wedding song, and our nightly slow-dance jam together. Suddenly, the words felt empty and the song lost all meaning.

A tattoo that had newly reminded me to open my heart now represented a loss so deep that I lost all sense of hope, my new life, and myself.

In the excruciating 15 months that followed, I did everything I could to try to save my marriage. But in the end, my love wasn’t enough. Our divorce finalized in February 2020, though I knew some part of me would always struggle to unlink the tattoo’s words from him, us, and our life together. I stopped listening to my favorite song and covered my wrist with bracelets, a watch, anything to hide the one thing that only reminded me of my husband and the family we created.

About a month after my lengthy divorce was finalized, I unexpectedly met, fell in love, and married a different man who’d help me believe in love again. I forged on and rebuilt a new, blended family. Weeks then months and years passed, and the tattoo that was tangled in complex, tethered memories slowly began to morph into something different: hope. But just as my heart started healing, my friend – the lead singer of the band – abruptly took his own life.

When I heard the news, all I could look at was the tattoo and all I could hear was his voice singing those words that reverberated from the stage, just like on the night we met. It didn’t matter what they meant before. Now, the irony of “Can I have you? Can I be a part of you? Can I help you? Can I be all for you?” punched through my chest with every heartbeat. I was not there for my friend in the end. I did not help him. I was not all for him.

A tattoo that had newly reminded me to open my heart now represented a loss so deep that I lost all sense of hope, my new life, and myself. I stopped leaving the house. I lost my job, stopped writing, and stopped talking to people who cared about me. I drank too much and gained weight. I hated what I saw in the mirror, but more than that, I hated the person who was inextricably linked to that tattoo: the woman who was left by her husband and who never replied to that lost friend’s last text. Between my divorce and my friend’s death, how could I wear words that were tied to so much pain? I began contemplating a cover-up tattoo so I wouldn’t see the reminder of either tragedy.

About a year after my friend’s death, I felt particularly grief-stricken, so I went for a run, and “Beautiful” popped up on my playlist. It had been there among the hundreds of songs for years but rarely surfaced, so it caught me off guard. Hearing my friend’s voice again stopped me in my tracks. In that moment, I felt my friend put his arm around me as the lyrics reminded me they were threads of my existence. The feeling of calm triggered something different this time: life. It had been so long since I could look at my tattoo, hear my favorite song, think of my ex-husband or our friend, and feel alive. I felt it was a sign to find my way back to the younger me who got that meaningful tattoo in the first place because it sparked joy, peace – all the things I had recently lost in grief.

I’m still in the throes of putting myself back together, and it may take a while, but I know I will find a way to carry on. Now, when I glance at the tattoo, I don’t feel so sad. In mourning, I’ve learned to attach the words to the only place that makes sense: my heart. It’s where happy memories of my former life remain, and where my friend lives on to sing another day.

And that is a beautiful thing.

Related: After 5 Failed Breast Reconstructions, Getting a Tattoo Over My Scars Helped Me Heal

Candace Ganger Powell is the author of multiple books, a former editor for Newsweek and The Dodo, and a journalist with an emphasis on parenting, mental health, commerce, and pop culture news. She’s worked as a senior entertainment writer for Showbiz Cheat Sheet and an identity writer for Romper. Her work has been featured by People,, Insider, HelloGiggles, Teen Vogue, Bustle, and more.

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