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'There Is No Good Card For This': What To Say When 'Condolences' Isn't Enough

When greeting card designer Emily McDowell hadcancer, she got a lot of cards that just felt weird. "A get-well-soon card is kind of strange if you might not," she tells NPR's Rachel Martin.

So McDowell started writing nontraditional sympathy cards. They say things like "Please let me be the first person to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason. I'm sorry you're going through this."

Now, McDowell's new book takes that idea one step further. It's called There Is No Good Card For This: What To Say And Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, And Unfair To People You Love.

Interview Highlights

On the absolute wrong thing to say to someone who has cancer

I came home to a voicemail that said, "Hey. I was just thinking of you because we had this family friend who passed away from cancer today. So I just wanted to know how you were doing." And it's super well-intentioned. ... Totally honest. It's just, you know, a lot of people say things trying to relate and end up sort of taking it [to] a weird place.

According to McDowell, pointing to a silver lining can make a person feel like their pain is being minimized.
Emily McDowell Studio / Courtesy of Harper Collins
Courtesy of Harper Collins
According to McDowell, pointing to a silver lining can make a person feel like their pain is being minimized.

On what you should say to a sick or grieving loved one

Really, I think it's all about listening. And 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. ...

On the problem with finding a silver lining instead of allowing someone to be angry or sad

Culturally, we're just not comfortable with a lot of those emotions and anything that I call "death adjacent," where the end could potentially result in death — which is ironic because all of our lives will result in death. That's the one thing we all have in common is that we're all gonna die. So, yeah, we do feel like this sort of internal pressure to come up with a silver lining. And when you are a person who is going through something, that feels like your pain, which is very real, is being minimized.

On writing sympathy cards for infertility

What was interesting with that was that that was not part of my original collection. I release them a few times a year, and every time I put in a few new ones, and infertility was by far the one that was most requested. ... It's not a situation that I have personally been through, and so it wasn't something that was in the initial list of things that I thought of, but I got so many requests both from people who knew me and from strangers, that I started researching it and then I started writing to it.

On how her sympathy card premise turned into a book

What became obvious in all of this feedback that we were getting from people was there needs to be some sort of guide that goes deeper than these cards can go, but that's in the same tone as the cards: down to earth, relatable, even funny. And I wasn't qualified to write that book. ... Enter Kelsey Crowe, who is an empathy scholar and runs an organization that she founded in San Francisco called Help Each Other Out where they do empathy boot camp workshops ... teaching people empathy around this particular thing. And we took her research and a lot of the material that she's developed for her workshops and turned it into an illustrated guide for how to show up ... after you've sent the card.

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