Pinch me! I am super excited to share my latest Q&A with you – a conversation with the incomparable Emily McDowell. Don’t know her name? I can nearly guarantee you know her artwork – fun, whimsical, and often sassy and irreverent. Slate named her Empathy Cards, a line of greeting cards crafted to help family and friends connect around illness and loss, one of the top designs making the world a better place. And no, I’m not getting paid to say any of this!
Emily was driven to make these cards after one of her best friends died of cancer. She was also inspired because of her own battle with the disease.
I’ve chosen to feature Emily now, during the holiday season, because her cards can help individuals who are sick or mourning feel supported this time of year. Receiving one of these cards will help them feel understood. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Emily as much as I did.
Allison: Before you started painting cards about grief and loss, you focused on illness. What was it about your own cancer experience that prompted you to tackle these challenging subjects?
Emily: The hardest thing for me about having cancer wasn’t something I expected: it was the loneliness and isolation I experienced when people disappeared because they didn’t know what to say. Traditional get-well cards weren’t helpful — a “get well soon” message doesn’t really apply if you might not, and pictures of flowers don’t help the person sending the card with finding the right words, which is the biggest struggle. With Empathy Cards, I wanted to make something that helped people going through illness feel seen, heard, and understood, and at the same time, give card options to their friends and family that helped open the door to conversations.
Allison: Your Empathy Cards don’t offer platitudes or silver linings. When it comes to the death of a loved one, your messages are striking because they’re opposite of what we’ve come to expect from sympathy cards — brutal honesty. Why take this approach?
Emily: When you’re grieving, platitudes aren’t actually helpful. You can’t solve someone’s grief, and there’s nothing you can say that will take it away. The most supportive thing you can do is to be present and willing to bear witness to their pain. Our cards don’t shy away from the reality of grief, and this comes as a relief to folks going through it, because it honors and acknowledges their experience instead of trying to plaster over it with a platitude.
Allison: Let’s talk about Sheryl Sandberg and her meaningful initiative, OptionB.org. I was honored to be part of Option B’s launch, and thrilled to interview Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn.org, and OptionB.org, for this blog. I also wrote a review about Sandberg and Adam Grant’s book, OptionB. You’ve created a special line of cards for Sandberg called #OptionBThere. How did this partnership develop and what’s your number one goal for the collection?
Emily: Option B actually reached out to us and asked if we would partner with them to create some digital cards — basically images — that could be shared and sent to people who were struggling with grief and loss during the holiday season. This is an especially hard time to be struggling, because it’s basically a cultural mandate to be festive and filled with cheer, and everywhere you turn there’s an emphasis on love, family, and togetherness. So I created the original collection in 2017, with the goal of providing something that acknowledged the difficulty of the season for a lot of people, and helped those folks feel supported and seen.
Allison: Have you lost someone close to you?
Emily: In 2011, one of my best friends died of cancer. That’s the loss that’s hit me the hardest.
Allison: Were you able to save a special memento of your relationship, and where do you keep it?
Emily: She gave me a charm the last time I saw her, and I keep it on my altar at home.