When a friend or loved one gets sick — really, seriously sick — it's hard to know what to say. So some of us say nothing. Which seems better than saying the wrong thing, though people do that too.
Los Angeles graphic designer Emily McDowell's solution to this dilemma are what she calls Empathy Cards. When someone is seriously ill, she says, the usual "Get Well Soon" won't do. Because you might not, she says. At least not soon.
McDowell knows this from experience. She's a 15-year survivor of Hodgkin lymphoma. She was just 24 when she was diagnosed.
"The most difficult thing about my illness was the fact that it was so lonely," she says. One of the reasons was "friends and family either disappearing because they didn't know what to say or well-intentioned people saying the wrong thing. So one of the most difficult things about being sick was feeling really alienated from everyone that I knew."
McDowell says she often got well-meaning advice on Internet "cures." "The thing that I felt when it was happening to me was: 'I also have the Internet. And I really appreciate you trying to help, but believe me, I've spent way too many hours Googling my own condition and any possible treatments. And I've made the decisions to do the things that I'm doing because I felt like they were the best choices for me.' "
And then there's "Everything happens for a reason." With time and distance, some people do come to that conclusion on their own, McDowell says. But "hearing that immediately after some shocking or terrible thing happens in your life is generally not what people want to hear."
What is it with people who respond to the news of your dire prognosis with more bad news? That was the impetus for "When life gives you lemons, I won't tell you a story about my cousin's friend who died of lemons."
"This is a weird thing that people do. When they found out ... that I had cancer, it was 'Oh yeah, so and so I know had cancer and they died.' ... It's like sort of knee-jerk 'Oh, I can relate to this' and then they don't really think about the ending. ... But it's really surprising how many people this happens to and how common that is as a reaction."
And wouldn't it be great if no one ever referred to your illness as a "journey"? "With time and distance some people do come to that conclusion on their own that this ... feels like a journey," McDowell says. "But a lot of people really feel like 'If this is a journey I'd like my ticket refunded,' or 'This is a journey to hell and back.' "
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
When someone you care about is very sick, it can be hard to find the right words. Some of us say nothing. That can seem better than saying the wrong thing, though we do that too. Well, a graphic designer in Los Angeles is addressing these struggles with something she calls empathy cards. NPR's Ina Jaffe has her story.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: If you want to reach out to a friend or loved one who's just been diagnosed with cancer or another life-threatening illness, usually your only options are cards that say something like, get well soon.
EMILY MCDOWELL: Which don't make any sense if you might not.
JAFFE: That's Emily McDowell, the designer of the empathy cards.
MCDOWELL: You get a get-well-soon card and you're like, well, I'll try. You know? (Laughter).
JAFFE: McDowell has earned the right to laugh about this. She's a 15-year survivor of Hodgkin's lymphoma. She was just 24 when she was diagnosed.
MCDOWELL: The most difficult thing about my illness was the fact that it was so lonely. One of the reasons was that friends and family either disappearing because they didn't know what to say or well-intentioned people saying the wrong thing, so I think one of the most difficult things about being sick was feeling really alienated from everyone that I knew.
JAFFE: That experience was painful, but the cards it inspired are kind of funny.
MCDOWELL: It says, I'm so sorry you're sick. I want you to know that I will never try to sell you on some random treatment I read about on the Internet.
JAFFE: Did that happen to you?
MCDOWELL: It did. It happened a lot. And the thing that I felt when it was happening to me was I also have the Internet, you know, (laughter) and I really appreciate you trying to help but, believe me, I've spent way too many hours Googling my own condition and any possible treatments and, you know, I've made the decisions to do the things that I'm doing because I felt like they were the best choices for me.
JAFFE: The collection of eight empathy cards was just introduced Monday. Since then it's been tweeted Facebooked and blogged all over the Internet. McDowell says by Wednesday night they'd received more than 3,000 orders, somewhat to her surprise.
MCDOWELL: It's incredible. We've called in everyone we know and some people we don't know (laughter) to help fill orders.
JAFFE: Here's their biggest seller so far.
MCDOWELL: It says, please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason. I'm so sorry you're going through this.
Whether I believe that or not personally is not really the point. I think with time and distance that's the thing that some people eventually come to that conclusion on their own, but, that's a thing that hearing that immediately after some very shocking or terrible thing happens in your life is generally not what people want to hear.
JAFFE: There's apparently a long list of things that people who are struggling with a serious illness do not want to hear. They've been sending the ones they love to hate to McDowell all this week. She expects some of their suggestions may inspire the next collection of empathy cards due in December. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.