Bridey Heing
May 07, 2015 6:44 am

When a friend or loved one becomes ill, it can be difficult to know what to say. Finding a way to communicate your support without feeling cliché, insensitive, or embarrassed can be such a struggle — sometimes the right words just never come and it becomes easier to say nothing at all. Far too often that’s what happens. Far too often, nothing is said.

Emily McDowell, a designer in LA, discovered that when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, many people in her life just did not know how to handle the situation. She was just 24 years old, and found that her friends and family had a hard time communicating what she needed to hear and what they wanted to say. So, on Monday she released a line of honest Empathy Cards, each with a message designed to help bridge that gap.

According to McDowell’s website, “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.”

Her Empathy Cards hit a very unique note. Their name speaks perfectly to the slight shift in perspective she’s allowed her cards to take. Rather than being about feeling sorry for someone (or giving them sympathy), McDowell’s cards are about understanding and being there (showing them empathy). Both a little cheeky and totally honest about the awkward, painful reality of serious illness, they are a far cry from the usual greeting cards you find in the store. And that was intentional. “‘Get well soon’ cards don’t make sense when someone might not. Sympathy cards can make people feel like you think they’re already dead. A ‘f*** 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,” McDowell writes.

Having gone through cancer and the loneliness that comes with it, McDowell knows too well what she and others with serious illness want to hear. Her cards run from the short and simple (“I’m so sorry I haven’t been in touch. I didn’t know what to say.”) to the more verbose (“Well, this just sucks. I wish I had a better way to say it, but my brain feels totally stuck right now. But I just want you to know that even though I might not always have exactly the right words, you will always have me. I’m not going anywhere. So I hope you’re cool with that. Because I love you”).

McDowell posted the cards to her site on Monday and they’ve done nothing but pick up traction. Everyone from local news, to Elle to Slate is talking about them, and it’s no wonder. In the often overly saccharine world of greeting cards, it’s refreshing to find something that communicates an honest, complicated, messy feeling. The goal of the cards is to make the recipients “feel seen, understood, and loved,” and McDowell has done just that with these perfectly designed sentiments.

To learn more about her cards, visit Emily McDowell’s website here.

(All images via Emily McDowell Studio)