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What We Need Is Empathy

Heather Millar - Blogs
May 05, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

The internet is all abuzz about a new line of “empathy cards,” designed by a Los Angeles artist and cancer survivor, Emily McDowell (check out #empathycards, and you’ll see what I mean).

Here are some of the messages on these cards:

  • “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.”
  • “One more chemo down! Let’s celebrate with whatever doesn’t taste disgusting.”

And my absolute favorite:

  • “I’m really sorry I haven’t been in touch. I didn’t know what to say.”

What I like about these cards is that they’re real. They give people permission to tell it like it is. And I love that they’re about “empathy,” about understanding and sharing the parts of life that sometimes suck. “Sympathy” cards are often annoyingly sappy, and they usually come across as either depressing or unnaturally upbeat. Honestly, how many pictures of lilies and sunsets can a cancer patient handle?

I’ve been seriously sick three times in my life: Lyme disease, a debilitating 6-month-long migraine during my pregnancy, and breast cancer. Each time that I’ve spent several months in pajamas, I’ve noticed that many, many people don’t know how to deal with someone whose suffering just goes on and on. Friends and family either retreat because they’re uncomfortable, or they fall back upon familiar sayings that are supposed to comfort or reassure.

But patients with serious illness don’t necessarily want their friends and family to tell them that it’s all going to be all right. It may not be. We don’t necessarily want to hear that our suffering has a purpose. It may be senseless. We don’t want to know about “miracle cures.” There really aren’t any.

What we patients want most of all is for our friends and family to be present. That means being there when we shave our heads before the chemo takes our hair. That means buying us potato chips and pickles if those are the only things that taste good. That means cooking meals and driving us to appointments. We want our friends and family to have the courage to accompany us to our chemo infusions and surgeries. We want those we love to recognize that illnesses like cancer are awful, but we also want the people we love to be able to laugh with us in the face of tragedy and suffering and uncertainty. For many of our loved ones, this isn’t easy – they may feel empathy but aren’t sure how to express it. I’m hoping that these “empathy cards” can help.

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About the Author
Heather Millar

Heather Millar is an award-winning freelance magazine writer and author with wide-ranging interests including health, science, the environment, geopolitics, technology, parenting, and Asian affairs. 

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