The most saccharine aisle at the drugstore isn't the one with the candy: It's the dreaded greeting-card section, where well-intentioned yet desperate shoppers congregate to find a pre-packaged sentiment that adequately conveys how they feel about someone in their lives. We're guessing that of the seven billion greeting cards
purchased every year, a fair number miss the mark. L.A.-based designer Emily McDowell
watched friends and family struggle to find the right words to say to her as she endured nine months of chemotherapy and radiation for Stage III Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer in which lymphatic cells grow abnormally
and reduce the body's ability to fight infection. The gulf between her and her would-be well-wishers spurred McDowell to create a line of "empathy cards" — quirky, compassionate, and lighthearted alternatives to the insipid "sympathy cards" McDowell received from her family and friends, Slate reports
"The most difficult part of my illness wasn’t losing my hair, or being erroneously called 'sir' by Starbucks baristas, or sickness from chemo," McDowell explains on her website
. "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."
The 11 cards in her line fill a gap in the market; they are greetings appropriate for serious illness, including cancer. "'Get well soon' cards don’t make sense when someone might not," McDowell points out. "Sympathy cards can make people feel like you think they’re already dead. A 'fuck cancer' card is a nice sentiment, but when I had cancer, it never really made me feel better." Even cards that attempted humor left McDowell feeling empty: "I never personally connected with jokes about being bald or getting a free boob job, which is what most 'cancer cards' focus on."
The language of each Empathy Card is lighthearted but not dismissive. It's specific enough to indicate that the buyer put thought into choosing it, but broad enough to apply to a range of very different illnesses, experiences, and people. "It’s not often that you look at a greeting card and think, 'The world needs this,' but in this case, I really believe that’s true," McDowell shares. Click through to view the collection — it may change how you relate to those with illness.