Empathy > Sympathy

19 May 2015

I’m a huge advocate of anything handwritten, stamped and delivered by the US Postal Service. But when it comes to the instances of grieving, divorce or impending loss it’s incredibly difficult to find the right words nonetheless the right greeting card. All you want is to comfort a friend or loved one but everything you say sounds trite, meaningless and prosaic. Maybe you’re dealt a situation of a family member getting an irreversible cancer and every greeting card you thumb through wishes her a speedy recovery and directions to”get well” when there’s no “getting well” in her foreseeable future, if ever.

I came across Los Angeles–based designer Emily McDowell and had to share both her story and the creations that came out being diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 24, enduring nine long months of chemotherapy and radiation before going into remission. Emily used her own experiences to create an effervescent approach to greeting cards, or as she has dubbed them “empathy cards.” They say exactly what you want to say, even if you can’t find the words to say. From Emily’s blog she tells us how the Empathy Cards came to be:

“Sympathy cards can make people feel like you think they’re already dead. A “fuck cancer” card is a nice sentiment, but when I had cancer, it never really made me feel better. And I never personally connected with jokes about being bald or getting a free boob job, which is what most “cancer cards” focus on. With Empathy Cards, my goal is to help people connect with each other through truth and insight. I want the recipients of these cards to feel seen, understood, and loved.

The most difficult part of my illness wasn’t losing my hair, or being erroneously called “sir” by Starbucks baristas, or sickness from chemo. It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.

In our increasingly digital world, when it comes to someone in crisis, greeting cards have never been more relevant or appropriate. A card resonates in a way that email and text can’t. It’s a personal, simple, tangible way to be present for someone struggling with illness.”

Here are a few of my favorites and you can order yours here from her website.

More platitudes. The last thing the person going through it wants to hear is "everything happens for a reason." Maybe eventually, with time and distance, this becomes more appropriate. But not immediately.

More platitudes. The last thing the person going through it wants to hear is “everything happens for a reason.” Maybe eventually, with time and distance, this becomes more appropriate. But not immediately.

I particuarlly love the "fuck cancer" card. "Fuck cancer." Who can disagree with that? Not me. Seriously, fuck cancer. I could hashtag it all day long. I really appreciate visibility and fundraisers and running for the cure. But I also know that hashtags and fundraisers and "fuck cancer" don't help all that much with the loneliness and isolation that can come with having cancer. Things that DO help: Friends and family who lovingly, unconditionally show up for the hard stuff.

I particularly love the “fuck cancer” card. ” “Who can disagree with that? Not me. Seriously, fuck cancer. I could hashtag it all day long. I really appreciate visibility and fundraisers and running for the cure. But I also know that hashtags and fundraisers and “fuck cancer” don’t help all that much with the loneliness and isolation that can come with having cancer.”
Things that DO help: Friends and family who lovingly, unconditionally show up for the hard stuff.

we've all been this person.

we’ve all been this person.

company and friendship are often the best medicine.

company and friendship are often the best medicine.

On Emily’s website there are perfect cards for imperfect occasions. For example, when you’re totally in “like” with someone + the inevitable Valentine’s Day comes around, what to do? Solved. Or how about this one was basically written for me + my husband will most likely be receiving it in the near future. Also, summer weddings, a card for the rest of your life and let’s conclude with an Amen!

Featured image: Emily McDowell 

P.S: this is a really charming and beautifully animated video on Empathy vs. Sympathy from one of our favorites, Brené Brown. (Thanks Sloane for sharing!)