How to commemorate a lost loved one with a tattoo

As the needle entered my side, just in between my rib bones, scraping across the skin as it buzzed, it released a cursive “L” of ink into my skin, each loop of the letter digging in deeper, just as it would for my two older sisters after me.

We had planned these tattoos for years, waiting until I turned 18 to do it. Five days after I became a legal adult, we headed to the tattoo shop to forever mark our mom’s memory into our bodies.

For as long as I can remember, a wooden plaque has hung in our family’s homes. Long and horizontal in jet black paint across the chestnut brown wood, adorned with dark green painted leaves for decoration read:

Live Well | Laugh Often | Love Much

The sign belonged to our mom, years before the saying flooded Etsy shops and Instagram bios, and continued to hang long after her death, even finding its own space in my stepmom’s house after our dad remarried.

We didn’t even have to talk about which sister would tattoo which part of the saying onto her body. It was a given.

Danielle, the oldest, received Live Well. For her, this aspect of the phrase simply means to enjoy life. Have fun. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Enjoy the simpler things in life, like good food, travel, taking a drive with your husband on a Sunday afternoon, or watching the sun go down at the beach. Above all, Danielle has the best perspective on life, and truly understands what’s important in life.

Julianne, the classic middle child, loved attention of all sorts, but loved it most when she was making others laugh. She received Laugh Often without thinking twice. Making prank calls was her expertise, sending all her friends into tearful, silent laughter as she signed people up for fake 5K charity runs or had them try to guess all 31 Baskin Robbins flavors to win a lifetime supply of ice cream. Her methods have grown up with her over the years, but still even today, she’s the one at the party starting dance-offs or organizing funny games to make sure people are having a good time.

And me. Well, I’m a lover. Dictated most by my heart and emotions, I gravitate towards all things love: romantic movies, love poems, psychology research on relationships. I’ve always been a relationship girl, never the one to date around, as I’d miss the connection of a deep, loving partnership too much. I cry easily, but I’ve learned to embrace this part of me, not as a weakness, but as a willingness to show my vulnerability; I truly believe more people should tap into this side of them more.

It was incredibly serendipitous that this phrase fit us so well. The fact that it went by age (the first part of the phrase belonging to the oldest sister down and so on) was even more proof that this was special enough to make permanent.

As we grow older, we realize how much our mom embodied these phrases as well before her death ten years ago — she didn’t just hang them on a wall.

Our mother loved nothing more than laying by the pool (or beach, or lake, or river; really any body of water she was in close proximity to) and sunbathing until the sun disappeared. She’d go out dancing just because she felt like it, or surprise us three by taking us to a hotel for a girls night, ending with room service ice cream sundaes as the literal cherry on top.

She absolutely loved to laugh and watched all the silly comedy movies we loved as teenagers, laughing right along with us at the immature jokes. She could always laugh at herself too. I remember she had to have one of her molars removed, which would prevent a lot of self-conscious people from laughing their full open-mouthed belly laugh, but not my mom. You knew she thought something was really funny when that gap peeked out.

And oh, did she love much. My mom was the one whose heart broke for every stray animal, too many times resulting in another new pet for us to take care of at home. As a middle school teacher, she’d spend her lunch duty sitting next to the friendless kids, who otherwise would only have their lunch tray as company. I learned recently that this habit started when she was just a kid. My grandma would be walking through a restaurant with my mom, look back, and she’d be gone. It wouldn’t be long until she found her chatting up an elderly person who was dining all alone.

With the wooden plaque and with the way she lived her life, my mom taught us how to be the women we are today, even if she’s not here to see it through. We are each a part of her, for better or worse, and that’s how she stays with us for the rest of our lives.

Did you get a tattoo after a loved one passed away? Tell us about it. Let’s have a conversation in the comments.

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