A good friend has just gotten the news no one wants to hear: her test results show cancer. She tells you her diagnosis over the phone, and instantly you’re hit with all kinds of emotions – concern, sadness, sympathy, and worst of all, the knowledge that there is nothing you can do to make this situation what it isn’t. Your next thought is to say something to her to make her feel better. Certainly, the right words from you will lift her spirits, give her hope. Problem is, what are the right words? How do you tell her you care and are there for her without reminding her that she is sick and might…well, you can’t even say the “d” word to yourself! You’re tempted to just avoid the whole situation and put off seeing her.
Words from Someone Who Understands
Emily McDowell, an artist and designer known for her unique, funny postcards, has channeled her creativity into ones specifically for people going through health (or other) crises. She calls them Empathy Cards. Diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of 24 (fortunately, she is currently in full remission), Emily knows firsthand what others said that helped, or didn’t help. She writes in her blog, “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.”
Keep It Real
Saying you can empathize with someone going through a crisis when, in actuality, you really cannot, rings false, e.g. “I know how you feel.” Even if you’ve had the same illness or struggle, everyone deals with life’s challenges in their own individual way. A more truthful and tactful comment would be, “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.” All of Emily’s Empathy Cards have a couple things in common – the words are honest, and they express caring. Perhaps it’s the combination of these two qualities that most comforts people going through serious difficulties. Examples of Emily’s verses:
- “I promise never to refer to your illness as a journey unless someone takes you on a cruise.”
- “Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason…”
- “Well, this just sucks. I wish I had a better way to say it, but my brain feels totally stuck right now. But I want you to know that even though I might not always have the exact right words, you will always have me. I’m not going anywhere…”
Benefits of Empathy
Besides being down-to-earth, Emily’s cards are wryly humorous. The best part, though, is that they give you a way to speak your truth and show compassion for someone at the same time! Their gut-level honesty breaks through barriers of fearful avoidance, helping both the receiver and the sender. And somehow as a result, everyone winds up feeling just a little more accepting…just a little better.
*On a footnote, this article was written prior to Sheryl Sandberg’s incredible Facebook post following her husband’s unexpected death. She echos the need to speak your truth when it comes to empathy. Worth a read: Sheryl Sandberg’s Facebook page.
To learn more about Emily McDowell and her Empathy Cards, visit this page.