A Lesson in Empathy: New Book Uses Humor to Teach How to Be Present for Someone in Need
Difficult situations come in all sizes. Whether it be a cancer diagnosis, another type of illness, infertility or a divorce, finding the right words to say does not always come easy. Enter Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D., compassion expert, and Emily McDowell, the creator of Empathy Cards. Both women are cancer survivors; Crowe had breast cancer, and McDowell had Hodgkin lymphoma.
Their personal experiences with cancer led them each to their unique professions. Connecting with one another years later through a mutual friend, the two wrote the new book, “THERE IS NO GOOD CARD FOR THIS: What to Say and Do When Life is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love.”
The colorfully illustrated, relatable and humorous book offers real-life examples, exercises and advice on how to be the best friend that you can be to someone in need. In an interview with CURE, Crowe and McDowell talked about what inspired them to write the book, how cancer changed their lives and the message that readers should walk away with.
What can readers expect to get from "THERE IS NO GOOD CARD FOR THIS?"
McDowell: This is a book that will help you feel totally confident in showing up for anyone who is going through anything hard, without having to become a different person or be anything that you are not already. It will help people to show up being confident as themselves.
Are there any specific instances in either of your lives that inspired you to bring this book to life?
Crowe: I had been doing empathy workshops and had already done a lot of research on how to be there for others through difficult times because of my own story. I always knew that I wanted this topic to be very relatable and engaging, and knowing that humor is a really good way of doing that — to sort of disarm people. Emily’s cards started going viral and our mutual friend who connected us made it clear that we would be good partners.
McDowell: I came to this kind of work through my own experience with having cancer 16 years ago, and then having been present for friends who had cancer and others who had gone through difficult times over the years. I observed that we really don’t know what to say. Most of us, including me, were just kind of at a loss for wanting to show up, but not knowing the best way to do that. It’s not something that we get taught.
So, when I started my card company, one thing that was really important to me was to create an alternative to a traditional sympathy card, which doesn’t really help you figure out what to say. I created Empathy Cards, which are a more honest way to look at issues around loss, grief and illness, and help people start conversations that they are having trouble having.
The cards had such a great response; a great takeaway for me was that there should be a book about this. A book that not only addresses this stuff, but in a way that has some humor, has some relatability and is written in a similar tone of the cards, which makes people feel like it is more accessible and less scary. I wasn’t qualified to write that book at all. Kelsey’s area of research and the workshops she has developed fit perfectly with this idea.
Did either of your cancer diagnoses change your approach to how you live, work and write?
Crowe: My cancer diagnosis in 2012 really forced me to commit more deeply into doing this kind of work because I was on the receiving end of so many kindnesses that I, myself, didn’t know how to do. That’s what propelled me into this work.
McDowell: When I got sick I was 24 years old. I am 40 now. At the time, I sort of came out of it with a little PTSD in that I just wanted to put it behind me. I wasn’t ready to integrate it into my life. I went and worked in advertising for 10 years, which is not something that you typically think of someone doing like ‘Oh, a brush with death,’ and then she goes and makes commercials. It’s not really in line with that narrative.
Then, one of my best friend’s got cancer in 2011 and I was close to it, for the first time, on the other side. That was what changed the way that I looked at it and gave a new prospective to the experience that I’d had.
You both mentioned humor being important. Do either of you have a funny story to share or words of hope that got your through your most trying times?
McDowell: One of the things that happens often when you get sick is that people don’t know how to be around you. A casualty of that is that people don’t know how to be funny around you. They think your sense of humor has up and left because you are in this difficult situation.
I want to stress this point: you are the same person who you were the day before your diagnosis. You just now have this strange new reality. I appreciated friends who weren’t afraid to go there with me.
I looked awful. I was going out into the world every day and I needed to be able to laugh about that. I needed to laugh at being called “sir” at Starbucks despite having Double-D breasts. Just being bald was like the marker for “dude.” My best friend went to the mall and got mugs made with pictures of herself doing things like a thumbs up or making ridiculous faces, and sent stupid gifts — I so appreciated that kind of stuff.
Crowe: Even sending things like funny YouTube videos helps.
I think the thing about humor is when it goes wrong like when people use humor to dispel their own awkward feelings. That’s very different, being emotional avoidant with humor versus being a conspirator in how absurd, and crazy some of this stuff is. When you are laughing with your friends at some of the absurdity about some of these things – like dragging around your chemotherapy bag and trying to navigate that while trying to go to the bathroom. Humor helps remind you that you still are the same person that you always were.
What message do you want readers to take away from this book?
Crowe: If you’re choosing between showing up or not showing up, and you care — better to risk on the side of showing up. McDowell: It’s always better to show up and be awkward then to not show up at all.