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.
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