When the hilarious illustrator, writer, and cancer survivor Emily McDowell launched her line back in 2013, it was a small operation running out of her bedroom. Just three years later, she now has a team in Las Vegas and Los Angeles producing her cards and merchandise. She has also finished co-writing a book, There Is No Good Card For This: What To So And Say When Life Is Scary, Awful, Or Unfair To People You Love, alongside Kelsey Crowe, empathy scholar and co-founder of the website Help Each Other Out.
As someone who has both survived the struggle of Hodgkin’s lymphoma and witnessed friends deal with death and illness, McDowell has a firsthand knowledge of how daunting it can be to provide apt words of comfort for people in pain. Making attempts to comfort a friend dealing with sickness or death can often feel like an exercise in futility, and for that reason, many of us become avoidant and fail to reach out. It was with this knowledge that she originally launched her line of Empathy Cards in 2015, giving language to situations that render us speechless.
The book, There Is No Good Card For This, combines the research and empathy expertise of Kelsey Crowe with the illustrations and humor of McDowell creating the ideal fusion of refreshing honesty and useful advice that can help us navigate friendship during similar situations.
We were lucky enough to pick Mcdowell’s brain about her vision for the book and Empathy Cards in general.
HelloGiggles: How did you first link up with Kelsey Crowe? Did you already know each other or did you seek her out specifically for the book?
Emily McDowell: When Empathy Cards came out and got that crazy reaction from the public, I started getting a push from publishers to pitch a book. Based on the feedback we got, I felt like the book that was really needed was one that would help people figure out what to say and what to do in these situations. But, I didn’t feel qualified to write that — I could write a book called “What I Felt” or “What I Think” and go into my personal opinions, but I’m not an empathy scholar; I’m not a researcher. I wanted this to be a “real” book, and not just my speculations. At the same time, one of my friends introduced me to Kelsey Crowe, and said, “You guys are totally on the same wavelength, Kelsey has this organization she started in San Francisco called Empathy Bootcamp.”
She introduced us, and we realized we had a similar vision when it came to what this book should be. Probably the best part is that we brought completely different complementary skills to the table. Because of all the research she’s done for her workshops, she was able to really tie parts of the book back to her wealth of knowledge. I was able to take her writing and translate it into the tone we wanted, then added the illustrations. So, it was totally this lucky coincidence that we had this mutual friend who connected us.
HG: One of the parts of the book I loved the most is the idea that empathy is something everyone can practice, not a trait some magically possess. Would you say your book is working to help people of all temperaments develop empathy skills?
EM: Absolutely. There’s no such thing as sucking at empathy. We all have the capacity for it. It’s just whether or not we choose to exercise it or not.
HG: When you first came out with the Empathy Cards, did you receive feedback from anyone saying you changed their perception of empathy?
EM: It was less about changing people’s perceptions of empathy, and more people saying, “Thank you for helping me understand that there are things I can say other than, ‘I’m praying for you.'” The feedback was largely, “Thank you for helping me start this conversation that would be overwhelming on my own.”
HG: Do you have specific moments or gestures in your life that stick in your mind as examples of empathy?
EM: Yeah! I think a lot of people have this idea that the bigger the action, the bigger the impact. But, that’s totally not true. Kelsey has done all this research showing that some of the most impactful gestures seem really small, maybe sending a text. I think we make it way harder than it needs to be. For example, if you’re on your phone every day anyways, you can put a reminder in your phone to text a friend everyday. It doesn’t have to be words,- It could be a GIF, or a cat video, or a picture of yourself from first grade, all it’s saying is that you’re thinking of them, and that your friend is not forgotten.
One thing I did for a friend that I know she ended up appreciating was making her a magazine care package every week. I was working in advertising and there were just stacks and stacks of available magazines, so I’d go down to the break room every week and make her a package. When you’re going through chemo, a lot of times your bandwidth for reading adult material is pretty shot. I barely got through Harry Potter when I was going through chemotherapy, so, it’s really helpful to give someone light entertainment. If you don’t have anything to say, just give someone your HBO Go password.
There’s a chapter in the book called an “Empathy Menu” that Kelsey put together in her workshops, and it’s basically mining your strengths and what you like to do. If you are already someone who likes to knit, knit someone a scarf. But if you don’t knit, don’t pretend to teach yourself to knit in order to make a gesture. So much of it isn’t the size of the action, but whether or not you’ll actually do it.
HG: What’s the most surprising or touching feedback you’ve received in reaction to the Empathy Cards?
EM: I’ve gotten emails from people who have said, “My friend got sick and I lost touch with them because I didn’t know what to say, and then I saw one of your cards and I sent it to them even though it had been a really long time. We were able to meet up and talk about everything, then that person ended up passing away.” There have been at least five or six emails in that vein over the last year and it’s very humbling.
When I first launched these cards I never imagined they would be used as that heavy of a tool. My intention was to fill a need, because there are so many cards we don’t need — Halloween cards for example, but when you’re at your loneliest, sickest, and most down, a card can make a world of difference. So I did hope for the cards to help people out, I just never expected that level of manifestation. Reading people’s stories that they share with me has really opened my eyes to what an intense need there is for openness about these kinds of topics.