Empathy Cards for Serious Illness Keep You From Saying the Wrong Thing

by Laurie Ulster
Originally Published: 

She says, “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.”

I’m not a cancer survivor; I am the daughter of someone who didn’t survive it. And McDowell’s exactly right, because nobody knows quite what to say. When someone you love dies, some people know enough just to tell you they’re sorry. Usually it’s older people who muster up the courage, and the younger ones, minus the few who have had to experience loss too soon in their lives, end up a little speechless as they don’t really know that saying anything, no matter how awkward, is still better than saying nothing.

But during that time when my mom was sick, people said some pretty messed-up things to her as well as to us, her children. These cards would have been perfect replacements for the misplaced sentiments of people who managed to make us feel worse when they were trying to make us feel better.

©Emily McDowell Studio

Do you know how many people told me “everything happens for a reason” when my mother was dying? “It’s a pretty shitty reason,” I finally said to the unfortunate soul who happened to say it at the wrong moment, after I’d heard it a dozen times already. What kind of reason is there that one person has cancer and another doesn’t? And how is that supposed to comfort anybody? Just seeing this card erased the dark smudge on my soul that was left there by the last person who said those words.

Then there’s the problem of sending cards to someone who has cancer. A “get well soon” card, as McDowell points out, can be uncomfortable when it’s not where things are headed, and sympathy cards, she says, can make people feel like they’re already dead. She wants to make it easier for people to connect, which is the most valuable thing you can offer to someone anyway.

I think my Mom would have liked this one:

©Emily McDowell Studio

And definitely this one.

©Emily McDowell Studio

What really helps, honestly, is just saying the truth instead of looking for an upbeat sentiment. This one speaks volumes.

©Emily McDowell Studio

And this one just makes me cry, a little. And it says it all.

©Emily McDowell Studio

So that’s where we’ll stop.

It’s about time someone came up with these, for those who struggle to find the right words. Serious illness is always incredibly difficult to talk about, but these cards can make it a little easier.

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