“No Good Card for This”: Empathy to the Rescue

Uhh…wow. Let me know if there’s anything I can do? “Most of us, most of the time” when receiving word that a loved one is suffering, say authors Emily McDowell and Dr. Kelsey Crowe, There’s No Good Card for This

It’s indeed a common line. And not so helpful.

We often say the wrong things to people who are suffering and/or grieving, something Emily McDowell‘s popular line of “Empathy Cards” has aimed to improve upon. Some examples of her cards’ captions:

When life gives you lemons I won’t tell you a story about my cousin’s friend who died of lemons.

I promise never to refer to your illness as a “journey.”

Unless someone takes you on a cruise.

The Five Stages of Grief:

Crying in public

Crying in the car

Crying alone while watching TV

Crying at work

Crying when you’re a little drunk

Combine McDowell’s humorous caring sentiments with the skills of Dr. Kelsey Crowe‘s “Empathy Bootcamps” and you’ve now got a book—There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love—teaching us how to be there for loved ones in need.

Both McDowell and Crowe are cancer survivors; each understands first-hand how others struggle to do or say the right thing. McDowell, on the standard sympathy cards not cutting it for her. “You still appreciate humor, you are still a whole person. There wasn’t really anything in greeting card world that allowed for that” (Ashley Strickland, CNN).

The “Empathy” line McDowell eventually created are “cards for the relationships we really have.” And these have struck a major chord with buyers.

McDowell decided she’d like to help people even further, so she sought an expert to help her craft a book that’s “whiskey for the wounded” versus chicken soup for the soul (Siran Babayan, Los Angeles Weekly).

One of the key ways to figure out what to say to someone, McDowell tells NPR, comes from listening.

…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.

As Alex Ronan (Slate) observes, being able to offer the right kind of listening isn’t a strong suit for many. So the authors offer some guidance, including a piece called “What Kind of Non-Listener Are You?”

For example, the Epidemiologist non-listener ‘asks a lot of clarifying, fact-based questions before learning how someone is feeling’ while the Sage ‘gives wise perspective and advice…when it wasn’t asked for’ and the Optimist ‘always offers a bright-sided perspective.’

Strickland of CNN summarizes other significant points of There Is No Good Card for This, which I’m totally paraphrasing below:

  • Avoid doing nothing. Offer something specific you can do versus the standard and not so helpful “let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
  • Take the time to carefully consider what it is you really can offer.
  • Try to learn about the process of grief.
  • Avoid making it about yourself.
  • Problem-solving isn’t the goal here.
  • People appreciate such simple gestures as listening and texting.

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