The 5 Stages of Grief and Your New Tattoo

So I just got my first “real” tattoo.

All of my other 8 tattoos have been script/roman numerals. I’m a writer, ok? I really like words. (There seems to be some type of stigma associated with getting font tattooed on your body in tattoo culture.)

One of my other tattoos.

Anyway! So for my 9th tattoo, I finally got some real art done by a fantastic artist based out of Virginia. It was my first big piece of work and I’m a little surprised by how I coped with it.

The tattoo this article is about (one of my biggest pieces!).

Getting a tattoo is a weird process—after the fact, I might add. It’s saying goodbye to the skin on that part of your body forever. You’ll never see it again. You now have to see—insert whatever it is you got tattooed on your body—every day.

What I went through was a little like the five stages of grief with my new tattoo.

Denial: It’s Not Really There!

If you’ve gotten a tattoo before, you have experienced this.

Immediately after you get your tattoo, you love it. You show everyone. It’s fresh. It looks amazing!

You wake up the next morning and you’re like, “WHAT. IS. THAT.”

It’s not that you didn’t remember that you got it done. It’s just that… well, it’s a part of you now. Like really a part of you. For the first couple hours after I got my tattoo, I was like, “Whoa. What is that thing?” By the next morning, I remembered that it was there.

But while it was healing, it didn’t seem like it was a part of my body. It almost looked like a shiny new sticker that I could just peel right off. Despite the fact that while I was washing it and could feel the lines inked into my skin, I thought, “It’s not really there! Nothing’s different!”

Anger: Why Did I Get That?

Not everyone has welcome reactions to your new ink.

Mom: “IT’S HUGE! How much did that cost? What?? Why?!!!”

Bestie: “DUDE IT’S FUCKING AMAZING YOU’RE AMAZING I LOVE IT AHHH!!!!!!!!!”

Fiancé: “Wow it looks sexy, you’re sexy, I love you.” *kiss*

Grandma: *insert slapping motion here* (Yes, she literally slapped my tattoo three days after I got it. I have not yet forgiven her.)

Regardless of people’s reactions (or on account of people’s reactions, whatever), you start to feel mad. Why did I get that? You think. You also see your credit card statement of how much it cost and, let’s face it, wake up the next morning feeling like shit because that part of your body is swollen and sore and red and you can’t wear clothes that cover it and you feel like you just hate everything.

Bargaining: If Only I Could Change This…

I saw a great YouTube video about tattoo regret and it really resonated with me, not necessarily because I have any tattoos I regret per se, but because she makes a great point.

You will always wonder:

  • What if I got it smaller/bigger?
  • What if I got it in color/black and grey?
  • What if I went to a different artist/shop?
  • What if I just had them change this little part of it?
  • What if I had gotten something different?
  • What if I didn’t get anything at all???

You bargain. You wonder what could have been changed. You think about changing it in the future. In my experience, the only reason I have wondered these things is because I am still grappling with my new tattoo.

I’m still processing it.

I don’t know what to think about it.

And, it’s not perfect.

Because nothing is ever perfect no matter how much we want it to be. Does my tattoo show imperfection? Of course. But, like me, it’s still beautiful.

Depression: I’ll Never Have Naked Skin Again

At some point, you start to feel depressed that you have this tattoo. You spent a bunch of money, spent hours in pain, and are now spending weeks taking care of it, resentfully avoiding the bathtub and wondering when you’ll ever feel normal again.

Me getting my tattoo done. That’s my leg ahhh.

I was freezing during this appointment! Next time remember to bring a sweater or a blanket, girl.

And then you realize that you’ll never BE normal again. Because you have this tattoo and you don’t know how to handle it. You know you’ll never see the skin on the other side of that tattoo again. What are you going to do??

You’re going to deal with it and you’re going to be just fine. Your skin is ruined, yes. But now you look like a tattooed badass and there’s nothing you can fucking do about it.

Acceptance: I Actually Like It!

Finally, once your tattoo heals a little more and it stops looking like a giant sticker, once your mom has stopped commenting on it and you can stop sleeping in weird positions to avoid rubbing it, you begin to accept and love your tattoo.

It’ll take at least a week or two, but you’ll realize that this tattoo is what you wanted and that it looks beautiful. It’s not perfect, but it’s you.

Side note: if you really hate your new tattoo or it has a major flaw you just can’t get over, you might not ever get to this stage, and instead you can seek out a tattoo artist who is experienced with cover-ups and get it taken care of. Laser removal is also an option, but I’ve heard it’s more costly and painful!

Do You Love Your Tattoo Yet?

It’s taken me a little while, but I love my new tattoo.

I’m grateful to the artist and his patience with my first big piece (thank you @tokatattoos), I’m grateful to have a beautifully designed tattoo, and I’m grateful it didn’t get infected while it was healing.

I’m also grateful that my rabbits didn’t scratch it, although Fiver did bite my leg ridiculously close to it, adorable little bastard. He’s literally never bitten me before and he chooses to bite my leg the day after I get a giant tattoo. I think it’s because the tattoo butter I used had lavender in it? Rabbits love herbs!

Don’t let this evil little thing fool you. I love him, though.

Give your tattoo some time, show it some love, and let your body heal. You’ll like your tattoo soon!

39 thoughts on “The 5 Stages of Grief and Your New Tattoo

  1. Kimberley says:

    Thank you for your words. I’m up to the tattoo regret part at the moment and have gone through many pages looking at removal options but then I thought, why not do a 180 and learn to love the tattoo instead, and stumbled upon your piece. I share your sentiments and appreciate your words. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one going through or have gone through these emotions. Thank you.

    • Jenn says:

      Thanks for your comment Kimberley! If you are really having trouble accepting your tattoo you could always look into getting it covered with another design. I know it’s like paying twice for the same tattoo, but for some people, it makes a big difference and enables them to finally love their ink!

  2. Ash says:

    I just got a tattoo on 20th, few days ago, I had been planning on getting one to honor my late father whom I love and miss dearly, and a trident representing his devotion to lord Shiva, I had been planning on this tattoo for the past 2 years, ( since his passing)) I also got my mom’s name tattooed as well its on my fore arm.
    I didn’t think I could feel this way once I got it, I was never a tattoo person so I knew why I didn’t want it before.
    after I got it , I loved it when I got home spoke to my mom and sister on the phone they didn’t say much. My other sister, friends and colleagues love it Now here I am, looking if I can get ti removed in future, what id people judge me, what if it goes ugly? I didn’t know that tattoos age and spread and dont look the same..
    is it just the stage? Iwhat should I so? feel so confused

    • Jenn says:

      You are only a few days in! It’s completely normal to have these feelings about your new tattoo. Have patience and give yourself some time to adjust. Tattoos do age just as skin does, you can get it touched up as recommended by your tattoo artist to keep it looking as good as possible. I wouldn’t consider removal just yet–it’s still very early and experiencing some regret is normal. I’m seven months out from this huge tattoo I got and I actually can’t imagine not having it now. I hope you come to love your tattoos as they honor your parents and are a part of you now. Remember, what other people think about you is none of your business. Love yourself; everything will be ok!

  3. Elise says:

    I just got a large tattoo on my shoulder and upper arm 5 days ago and i’m totally feeling the regret right now. It’s a beautiful tattoo and it’s almost exactly what I wanted, but now it’s overwhelming me. I keep wishing I could turn back time and not do it at all. But I can’t, and that’s rough on me mentally. I’ve got 5 others that are smaller and not as visible, therefore, I’ve never felt this feeling before this new one. I’ve been contemplating removal, but i’m trying to tell myself to chill and just give it time. Hoping like hell, that it’ll get better. I hope I end up with the mindset that you have now.

    • Jenn says:

      Hey Elise, thanks for your comment! Your feelings are totally normal–you’re fortunate that your new tattoo is beautiful as you say and pretty much just what you wanted. I bet once your tattoo heals and you have some time to adjust to it you’ll feel much better about it. As I found, it can be difficult getting a bigger piece after getting smaller ones and dealing with all the emotions that come with it. Take care of your new tattoo and be patient. If you really want it removed after it heals, you can pursue that option, but allow yourself to process this new piece and grow to accept it for what it is right now. I hope you come to love it!

    • Nancy says:

      My husband passed away last year I got a cross on my forearm along with sun rays shining Down on it from blue clouds I was in such a state of grief that i wanted something to hold onto now but im kind of sorry I did it the tattoo didn’t bring him back I’m going to give it some time if I’m not happy in a few weeks I’m getting it lasered Off

      • Jenn says:

        Thank you for your comment, Nancy. I can understand your regret about your tattoo, even though it was (is?) a tribute to your late husband. I’ve heard lasering is very expensive, painful, and will leave a scar. You might want to consult a tattoo artist who has experience with cover-ups to see if that might be a better option for you. My sympathies to you for the loss of your husband, and my best wishes to you on your journey in remedying your tattoo, whatever it is you decide to do with it. If it were me I might give it a bit more time (in the grand scheme of tattoos, a year is a pretty short amount of time to have it), but only you know what’s best for you. Good luck!

  4. Susanna says:

    WOW I needed this. I got my first tattoo, after 2 years of thinking, and i got my second one out of a whim. Anyway, I love the minimalist look, but i see other peoples tattoos with more detail and then i look at mine, wondering, i should of added more. Then I see those small imperfections, where a line isnt straight, or the size isnt the same. (I am very OCD) and i am always tempted to go back and touch it up. But what is the point? No matter what I will find imperfections. I am going to accept my tattoos both of them. The imperfections and flaws are what make them beautiful, it’s what makes them my own

    • Jenn says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Susanna! You are absolutely right when you say that no matter what you will find imperfections. In addition, getting touch-ups may just make more room for you to perceive imperfections with it. No tattoo is perfect. And I can promise you that no one is noticing the flaws you’re noticing! You are also absolutely right when you say the imperfections are what make them beautiful and make them yours–beautifully said!

      • Nancy chambers says:

        Jenn thank you for your comments I am now very comfortable with my tattoo it took me a little time. It is a tribute to my husband and I’m now comfortable with it.

      • Tracie Humphries says:

        Such a great article and just what I needed to read after getting a big tattoo yesterday…….I’m having the most trouble with other people’s opinions and reactions. It always makes me question myself..

        • Jenn says:

          I know it can be difficult to not be affected by other people’s opinions! This is your life and no one else’s. They don’t have to live with the tattoo, you do. If the tattoo you got is what you wanted, all you have to do is love and accept it! Thanks for sharing, Tracie 🙂

  5. Spencer says:

    I hate my new tattoo. I thought I wanted it and what it is does have meaning for me . But I still wished I had not gotten it. I have another tattoo that I love but this new one I skilling me and I see it everyday when I take my shirt off in the mirror. I have never had anxiety like this before .

    • Jenn says:

      Thanks so much for your comment Spencer, and so sorry to hear you hate your new tattoo. How long has it been since you’ve gotten it? I’m hoping time will resolve your negative feelings about it; however, if it doesn’t, would you be able to get it covered up? I know larger tattoos can be difficult to cover. I hope you have some peace about your new ink eventually, even if that means getting it removed or doing what you need to do to feel better about it.

    • Leigh Wolfe says:

      I’m so glad I stumbled upon this! I’ve been dreaming about getting my arm tattoo’d for years now. I feel ill 3 years ago and nearly died from a tick bite that gave me a rare parasite that lived in my spine and brain, heart and nervous system. I realized a lot during those times, and it was the darkest days ever. I made a promise to God I would love life to the fullest if he let me live. Long story short, 3 years later, I’m a new person. Hence why I want to shout it to the world and be true to me. Insert tattoo….that of wild flowers and my grandmas writing from a card she sent me when I was sick. I wasn’t prepared for the “oh my god what I have I done to myself” feeling and absolute remorse. Like some other wrote, I feel such anxiety when I look at my arm!!! I wish it would go away !! Your article has helped me and so have the comments. I hope everyone is in a better place now!

      • Jenn says:

        Thanks for sharing, Leigh, and glad the article and comments have been helpful! I’m so sorry to hear about your illness and hope you’re in better health now. The wildflowers sound very pretty, and I’m a fan of handwriting tattoos (having one myself)! It can certainly be anxiety-inducing getting a new piece. I hope you come to love your tattoo and continue to live life to the fullest!

  6. Sophie says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this article! I got my first ( beautiful ) piece yesterday… but it isn’t *exactly* what I pictured and I keep swinging between moods of ‘ i shouldn’t have done that’ sadness and ‘what if it just had *insert teeny tiny tweak here*’. After reading so many unhelpful blogs about people who feel AMAZING after and “maybe you should have thought more before you got it” , this was really refreshing.

    • Jenn says:

      Thank you, Sophie! It feels like nothing in life turns out exactly how we imagine. I love my tattoo but it’s not perfect and that’s ok. I hope you come to love and accept your new piece!

  7. Sarah says:

    Just had a forearm tattoo 2 days ago n the line are way too thick, black n bold. I feel sick to the stomach n gutted. Another artist has basically said it’s a bit of a mess n its way too thick lined n black that the artist had made a few of that kind of messes lately… i was too hasty n am now really angry n upset with myself n so upset that i didn’t have the guts to stop the session n let myself get worked by the guy, who i know was shakey but trying to do his best to please… i feel weak n ashamed, withdrawn emotionally n ‘stuck’ in a loop if u get me? It’s a horrid feeling. My husband really likes it, for what it represents ….
    I’m 54 ….We’re on honeymoon n i saved his life 5 days ago n nearly lost mine in the process n i so wanted to celebrate the limb that literally stopped him from drowning in a rip tide hundreds of yards from the shore in NZ waters n hate that i now hate the art on the forearm that kept him above the water n towed him for enough in for us both to be reached by others who started to wade out without threat to themselves .I am a gold standatd life saver n ex under national swimmer swam…. i so hard with the rest of my 9st little body that i nearly ran out if energy in the pull n despite all my power kept getting swept further out n feared i would drow the tat meant to signify that but doesn’t . All i see now is my weakness, stupidity, folly n impetuousness n am worried about the finished product and my capacity to move beyond the emotional stuckness. It feels so crap. So sorry to dump this but i need to reach out….

    • Jenn says:

      Hi Sarah, I’m so sorry about your feelings regarding your new tattoo. It sounds like it all happened so fast (the rescue of your husband and then the tattoo). You are probably still processing everything. It sounds like the tattoo represents something so significant, yet the thick black lines you describe and the feelings you have regarding moving forward with the session even though you didn’t feel quite right about it sound awful. I’m really sorry this all happened. You can’t do much until the tattoo heals anyway, so give it some time. You can always pursue a cover-up (maybe one as an honor to saving your husband just better?) or a removal. I hope you find some peace and forgiveness after everything… after all, you did save your husband and you both are alive and married and hopefully doing well. Sending much love and healing vibes!

  8. Kim Hamilton says:

    I have two tattoos one of a butterfly on my shoulder and another of a rose on my hip. I love them both and both are hidden. Now I have a third tattoo of a little cute tortoise on my left wrist. The tortoise has a smile and is quite sweet. I got it to remind me to Slow Down and not rush through life. I like it one minute and not so sure about it the next. It is because this will be seen more by people due to it being on my wrist. It is about an inch long and an inch wide and I only have it two weeks. I too am at the regret stage but laser and the time it takes to remove it plus the cost does not seem like an option. I hope acceptance kicks in eventually.
    Kimberley

    • Jenn says:

      Thanks for your comment, Kimberley! I adore turtles and actually the huge tattoo I got that I wrote this article about was a sea turtle 🙂 In the last five months, I’ve gotten two more tattoos, both on my forearms and both very visible (one big one small). I can certainly understand what you’re saying about more people seeing your new tattoo. Your tortoise sounds very cute and I hope you come to love it. It can certainly be a shift going from having non-visible tattoos to very visible ones. This is your body and remember, what others think doesn’t matter!

  9. Nancy says:

    Kim I lost my husband last December I grieved so much that I got a cross on my arm I awoke one morning seeing sun rays coming through the
    Clouds I believe it was my husband I had regret but it passed I live my tattoo now you will too give it time Nancy

  10. Rachel says:

    Thank you for your article. I am regretting my tattoo I got on Friday. It was a cover up but the artist misplaced the stencil and then instead of free handing she just flat out didn’t cover my old tattoo! I tried reaching out and she won’t even return my calls. Now I feel like I’m not sure if I even want a tattoo on my skin from such an unprofessional rude person. Do you think if I got it fixed by another artist it would be easier to overlook the fact that I have art on my body from a jerk?

    • Jenn says:

      Hi Rachel! I’m so sorry your coverup went wrong 🙁 That sounds awful and the artist is not doing themselves or you any favors by avoiding the issue. (I’m wondering if the artist works at a shop and if so, you can contact the owner of the shop to discuss the problem or at least let them know what happened?) If you want to get it fixed by another artist, I would definitely go for it. It could help you feel better about the piece for sure. I wish you the best of luck!

  11. Kayla says:

    I got a ghost tattoo around my birthday in October, and it’s really cute and I like it but the artist pressured me into getting a background on it. I’m still in the denial phase and it’s been over 6 months. It’s on my ankle too, so I can’t even cover it. When I try talking to my mom or sister about it they just tell me I should have never done it, but that advice doesn’t help me now.

    • Jenn says:

      Oh no! That’s certainly a tricky situation because I feel like people who get tattooed are always hearing “trust the artist” from professional tattoo artists. It sounds like you did exactly this but then ended up with something you didn’t want. It’s possible another artist could attempt to “fix” the background for you (or you could at least get a consultation with an artist you love to see what can be done). Family members can be critical of tattoos in my opinion, and you’re absolutely right, their “advice” doesn’t help you now. I hope that whatever happens, you’re able to feel some peace about your little ghost. Thanks for sharing, Kayla!

  12. Mumu says:

    I recently got a tattoo which has no meaning just to impress someone I love and just after getting it he ended things between us now I hate my tattoo and my entire body and all I think of is I need to get it removed as soon as possible sometimes I feel like cutting it off I have dark skin therefore I don’t know if laser won’t make it worse but it has to go because am really depressed about it and I can’t keep on leaving like this

    • Jenn says:

      Oh no, I’m so sorry Mumu! That sounds terrible. You are allowed to feel however you feel about your tattoo. I know it feels awful right now; all you can do is accept that you feel this way about it. Is it small enough that you could get it covered up? Maybe you can start researching artists/designs you love and begin planning a coverup, that might help you feel a little less negatively about the piece (and your body) and start bringing some positivity into your life. You can make the tattoo about you, not him. I have my husband’s nickname and name on me and two other tattoos that relate to him–I’ve always heard this is a terrible idea in case we aren’t together one day, although I haven’t had to experience that yet. My sincerest sympathies to you in this difficult time of having a tattoo you hate and going through a breakup 🙁

  13. Cat says:

    Just had my fifth tattoo. The guy worked really hard on it but I’m just not sure about it. The drawing and stencil was amazing and in some angles I’m ok. I flit between liking and hating it.

  14. Vlad says:

    I recently got two tattoos done, never had any, never really wanted one or imagining having one while I grew up. I tattooed my guitar on the inner side of my forearm on Saturday, and Planet Earth on my right arm on Sunday. Sunday evening was the worst, I was very depressed and I was almost crying when talking to my aunt on the phone. She is no tattoo fan, but she listened to me and then started making jokes and saying that everything is fine, that this doesn’t define a person. She actually added that it might also be a lesson for her, not to judge people by appearances.

    Then I understood that those tattoos are right where they should be, and that I’ve chosen to do them for a reason. That they have deep emotional meaning to me at this moment in my life, that after years I will look at them and realize how I developed on the way. I will never look at them as ‘not want them anymore’ but as ‘I can’t believe I did it, me tattoos? i was so foolish – or – I was so crazy – or – It was such a good decision, it made me see things differently’. But it will be fine, no matter how I will think. I love myself with imperfections and tattoos, and I will never judge others by appearances, neither be afraid to be judged. I’d say that overall they made me a better man, even though it hasn’t been a long while yet. That is my feeling.

    I would add that my tattoos are big and colorful, and may look childish to say at least. Also, I’m 30 and I have a regular office environment job. Think about this, if now you suddenly have to live alone on an island, would you care/be depressed about having tattoos? No you wouldn’t, you would have completely other things , serious things, to worry about. Because tattoos simply don’t matter, it’s simply not a big deal at all compared to other things. But you do care now, because of society’s perception projected on yourself. I am not talking about all the situations, I am just saying what I’ve been through. Once you manage to make peace with yourself, you will not care about your tattoos. Like I said in the beginning, they are there for a reason.

    I wrote this comment because I thought if it manages to slightly motivate a person that’s going through something similar, then it’s time well spent.

    I also wanted to say what the tattoos mean to me, but this is already super long. Love, peace and success I wish you! There’s plenty for everyone, and tattoos have nothing to do with it.

    • Jenn says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Vlad. You make a very valid point and your perspective on the matter is refreshing and could be a positive influence on many. I too feel that my tattoos are a part of me and that no matter what happens it doesn’t really matter 🙂 That being said, that doesn’t take away from those “in the moment” feelings that you, I, and others who are reading this and commenting have experienced about their new tattoos. Perhaps your words best reflect the place that some people will gradually come to about their new body art–one of acceptance and peace. Love, peace, and success to you as well!

  15. Natalie says:

    Hi there,

    I’m reading you post with tears in my eyes
    I recently got a tattoo cover up just between my shoulder blades. The new tattoo is of a lotus flower and it covers an old aged tattoo that I had.
    The tattoo itself is pretty but I hate it, I hate it and everytime I think of it, I start having panic attacks and feel like something alien is on my back that I want to scratch off.
    It is bigger than my old tattoo and I got it only 2 days ago. I have already started looking at surgical procedures to remove it or how quickly I can get laser on the thing.
    I can’t understand why I’m reacting in such a way to this new tattoo, my husband is trying to calm me down and claims its prettier and more feminine than the old one and it’s not as big as it is in my head.
    I’m not coping very well at all with this new piece, im doing everything I can to hide it and even looked at my whole wardrobe as to which items of clothing I can still wear.
    I am not a depressive person but this really has me going in a downward spin and I can’t seem to stop the thoughts and feelings
    Any words of advice would be truly grateful.

    Many thanks

  16. Elise says:

    This is my second comment on this. I got my most recent tattoo Nov. ’18, and I was in a major depressive state for over a month. It is the biggest tattoo I have and it freaked me out to say the least. I survived the winter because long sleeves allowed me to keep it covered, but I was dreading upcoming warmer weather.
    Now that warm weather is here and I have since come to terms with my tattoo. I picked it for a reason, I had wanted to do it for a long time, my 8 year old daughter had input (it’s a rose and her middle name is Rose), and I was so happy the day I did it. So why the occasional regret? I’m still not sure, and once in a while I still look and wish I hadn’t done it at all. But I did do it and I feel I need to love it and myself.
    It is different for everyone obviously and this thread had a big part in helping me through the acceptance process. Even if I feel unsure at times, I find it much easier to just throw on that sleeveless shirt and show it to the world.
    It will be ok, I know this now. To everyone that is in a similar boat, I hope you can feel the same way eventually. I hope you can learn to not let others bring you down or be too hard on yourself.
    For me, in the grand scheme of things, if my tattoos are my biggest regrets in life, then I think I’ve done ok overall.

    • Jenn says:

      Thanks for this update, Elise! I agree when you say we shouldn’t let others bring us down or be too hard on ourselves. Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done! I’m so happy you’ve found some peace with your tattoo. I think as time goes on, you’ll come to love and accept it even more 🙂

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