'There Is No Good Card For This': What To Say When 'Condolences' Isn't Enough | WYPR

'There Is No Good Card For This': What To Say When 'Condolences' Isn't Enough

Feb 13, 2017
Originally published on February 13, 2017 9:54 am

When greeting card designer Emily McDowell had cancer, she got a lot of cards that just felt weird. "A get-well-soon card is kind of strange if you might not," she tells NPR's Rachel Martin.

So McDowell started writing nontraditional sympathy cards. They say things like "Please let me be the first person to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason. I'm sorry you're going through this."

Now, McDowell's new book takes that idea one step further. It's called There Is No Good Card For This: What To Say And Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, And Unfair To People You Love.


Interview Highlights

On the absolute wrong thing to say to someone who has cancer

I came home to a voicemail that said, "Hey. I was just thinking of you because we had this family friend who passed away from cancer today. So I just wanted to know how you were doing." And it's super well-intentioned. ... Totally honest. It's just, you know, a lot of people say things trying to relate and end up sort of taking it [to] a weird place.

On what you should say to a sick or grieving loved one

Really, I think it's all about listening. And I think a lot of what we go into in the book is that we operate under the assumption that we need to find the right words, and the good news is that Oprah can't even do that. Nobody can do that. And so you kind of are off the hook in that really all you need to say is, "I'm here," and "I'm thinking about you," and "How are you doing today?" and then let the person talk. ...

On the problem with finding a silver lining instead of allowing someone to be angry or sad

Culturally, we're just not comfortable with a lot of those emotions and anything that I call "death adjacent," where the end could potentially result in death — which is ironic because all of our lives will result in death. That's the one thing we all have in common is that we're all gonna die. So, yeah, we do feel like this sort of internal pressure to come up with a silver lining. And when you are a person who is going through something, that feels like your pain, which is very real, is being minimized.

On writing sympathy cards for infertility

What was interesting with that was that that was not part of my original collection. I release them a few times a year, and every time I put in a few new ones, and infertility was by far the one that was most requested. ... It's not a situation that I have personally been through, and so it wasn't something that was in the initial list of things that I thought of, but I got so many requests both from people who knew me and from strangers, that I started researching it and then I started writing to it.

On how her sympathy card premise turned into a book

What became obvious in all of this feedback that we were getting from people was there needs to be some sort of guide that goes deeper than these cards can go, but that's in the same tone as the cards: down to earth, relatable, even funny. And I wasn't qualified to write that book. ... Enter Kelsey Crowe, who is an empathy scholar and runs an organization that she founded in San Francisco called Help Each Other Out where they do empathy boot camp workshops ... teaching people empathy around this particular thing. And we took her research and a lot of the material that she's developed for her workshops and turned it into an illustrated guide for how to show up ... after you've sent the card.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is the day before Valentine's Day. And if you've ever found yourself frustrated in the quest for the perfect card, greeting card designer Emily McDowell might have the one for you.

A few years back, she wanted to create a card for someone to give in an awkward, early stage of a relationship on Valentine's Day.

EMILY MCDOWELL: And it says, (reading) I know we're not, like, together or anything, but it felt weird to just not say anything, so I got you this card. It's not a big deal. It doesn't really mean anything. There isn't even a heart on it. So basically it's a card saying, hi. Forget it.

And forget it is in little, tiny letters.

MARTIN: And thus, McDowell found her niche, creating greeting cards for the relationships we have, not necessarily the ones we want. She has expanded that idea into a book called "There Is No Good Card For This: What To Say And Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, And Unfair To People You Love." It's an outgrowth of one of her early lines of greeting cards that tackled grief.

MCDOWELL: Because traditional sympathy cards sometimes leave a bit to be desired in terms of people not really knowing what to say, and...

MARTIN: Which is why we buy a greeting card, right? (Laughter).

MCDOWELL: Exactly.

MARTIN: Because...

MCDOWELL: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...We don't know what to say.

MCDOWELL: Exactly, and I had personally had cancer 15 years ago and had been on the receiving end of people's attempts at sympathy cards, which, you know, not being their fault, but being just sort of weird. Like, a get-well-soon card is kind of strange if you might not, you know?

MARTIN: Yeah.

MCDOWELL: And I felt like there was an opportunity to start conversations that were sort of more honest and deeper and more helpful around these issues of illness and loss that we have such a hard time talking about.

MARTIN: Yeah. Can you share a moment when someone, and you don't have to name them, but when someone said the absolute wrong thing to you when you were sick, or a time when you wish someone had said something differently?

MCDOWELL: Sure, yeah. I mean, it was when we had answering machines. And I came home to a voicemail that said, hey, I was just thinking of you because we had this family friend who passed away from cancer today (laughter). So I just wanted to know how you were doing.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

MCDOWELL: And it's super well-intentioned.

MARTIN: I mean, it is honest, right?

MCDOWELL: Totally honest.

MARTIN: It's totally honest.

MCDOWELL: Totally honest, it's just, you know, a lot of people say things trying to relate and end up sort of taking it in a weird place.

MARTIN: So how do you walk that line between being honest in your approach with someone who's going through a hard thing and being sensitive?

MCDOWELL: Really, I think it's all about listening. And I think a lot of what we go into in the book is that we operate under the assumption that we need to find the right words. And the good news is that Oprah can't even do that. Nobody can do that. And so you kind of are off the hook in that really all you need to say is, I'm here, and I'm thinking about you. And how are you doing today? And then let the person talk.

MARTIN: There's also this expectation that we have to reassure, right? That's - that's the social tendency is to tell our friend or loved one that everything's going to be OK or to point out a silver lining. And there's not a lot of room in the culture to just be angry or sad.

MCDOWELL: Absolutely. We don't - culturally, we're just not comfortable with a lot of those emotions and anything that I call death-adjacent, where the end could potentially result in death, which is ironic because all of our lives will result in death. I mean...

MARTIN: We're all going to get to the...

MCDOWELL: ...That's the - yeah. That's the...

MARTIN: We're all going to get there.

MCDOWELL: ...One thing we all have in common is that we're all going to die. So, yeah, we do feel, like, this sort of internal pressure to come up with a silver lining. And when you are a person who's going through something, that feels like your pain, which is very real, is being minimized.

MARTIN: I love this card, which acknowledges the anger that can live in these dark situations. (Reading) Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason. I'm sorry you're going through this, in smaller script at the bottom.

MCDOWELL: Right. When someone says to you when you're going through something, everything happens for a reason, you do kind of want to punch that person.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MCDOWELL: But you also feel guilty for wanting to punch them because you know that they're just trying to help. One of the goals that I had with these cards was to make people who were going through these things feel understood.

MARTIN: Yeah, I also love that you get specific with issues that don't ordinarily have their own section in the greeting card aisle. You've got one on infertility.

MCDOWELL: Well, what was interesting with that was that infertility was, by far, the one that was most requested. And it was not one - because it's not a situation that I've personally been through and so it wasn't something that was in the initial list of things that I thought of. But there - I got so many requests, both from people who knew me and from strangers, that I started researching it, and then I started writing to it.

MARTIN: What did you want to do with this book, because it's one thing to have these greeting cards and to be reaching out and giving people these tools in that way? But you've now kind of sewn some some lessons together. What do you...

MCDOWELL: Yeah, so...

MARTIN: ...Want people to take from this?

MCDOWELL: Well, the book - what became obvious in all of this feedback that we were getting from people was there needs to be some sort of guide that goes deeper than these cards can go but that's in the same tone as the cards - down-to-earth, relatable, even funny. And I didn't - I wasn't qualified to write that book.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Enter Kelsey Crowe.

MCDOWELL: Enter Kelsey Crowe, who is an empathy scholar and runs an organization that she founded in San Francisco called Help Each Other Out where they do empathy boot camp workshops...

MARTIN: Wow.

MCDOWELL: ...Which is...

MARTIN: Teaching people empathy.

MCDOWELL: ...Sitting down. Yeah, I mean, teaching people empathy around this particular thing. And we took her research and a lot of the material that she's developed for her workshops and turned it into an illustrated guide for how to show up...

MARTIN: Yeah.

MCDOWELL: ...How to be.

MARTIN: After you've sent the greeting card...

MCDOWELL: Yeah, after you've sent the card, right.

MARTIN: ...How are you in someone's life who's going through a hard thing?

MCDOWELL: Yeah, and how to be in it as yourself. I mean, one of the big things that we stress in the book is that you don't have to be a person who is, like, an emotional ninja. You don't have to be someone who's good at feelings. And that's a thing I think that people are afraid of. They feel like, oh, I'm not the kind of person who can.

MARTIN: Emily McDowell is the creator of Empathy Cards, and she's the co-author of the book "There Is No Good Card For This: What To Say And Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, And Unfair To People You Love."

Emily, thanks so much for talking with us.

MCDOWELL: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAN RYOKO'S "UTAKATA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.