Emily McDowell is a writer, illustrator, speaker, teacher, and entrepreneur who is fiercely committed to not doing all of those things at the same time. After spending a decade working in advertising, she founded Emily McDowell & Friends in January 2013. Her work has been featured by The New York Times, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, BBC News, and NPR's All Things Considered, among many others. She lives in Los Angeles with her family and various half-dead plants.
Kate identifies three types of responses she’s experienced in her New York Times Op-Ed: Minimizers, Teachers, and Solvers. Read it in its entirety, here.
The voicemail clips you heard at the end were from actual listeners. We received so many of your heartbreaking and beautiful stories. Thank you. A special thanks to Julie, David, Dee, and Jess for sharing your voices with us on this episode. To lend your voice to a future episode, leave us a voicemail: (978) 842-1817.
Kate Bowler: Hi. I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens.
Hey! I’m back! Hello. I was gone all summer and it was completely amazing. We toured around in our Airstream visiting friends and family, and we lived in the woods for so long camping that at one point, somewhere around day 50, my kid looked up at me and said, “Mom—we live in the woods now?”
I am so glad to be back with you all, and having conversations about what you do when everything falls apart.
How do you move forward? Like—what do you do with your life?
I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer three years ago. I’ve been in treatment ever since, and in the last year I’ve been in a good stable place, where we are watching and waiting with scans. I’m so glad to be out of the sense of immediate crisis where it feels like I’m dangling over the edge of a cliff. And now, basically, it’s like I got to take two steps back from the cliff and live there.
Build a home. Eat some bagels. Get casual.
So, that’s where I am. And I need friends and strangers and community to figure out how to live beautifully, now that I know that life is so fragile.
So I wanted to kick off Season Two with one of my favorite go-tos for inspiration. But not ‘rah-rah’ inspiration. Like, ‘look into my soul and make me laugh’ inspiration. Today’s guest is Emily McDowell. She is a writer, illustrator, speaker, and founder of Emily McDowell Studio, which makes my favorite greeting cards in the world. You’ll see why. She also co-wrote a book with Dr. Kelsey Crowe called There Is No Good Card For This: What To Say and Do When life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair To People You Love. She calls her brand of encouragement “whiskey for the wounded.” Perfect, right? Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Good Morning America, NPR…and is basically everywhere beautiful cards are sold. I’m thrilled to be getting into the amazing and terrible specifics about what to say and do when everything falls apart.
Emily, I’m so glad to be talking with you.
Emily McDowell: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here.
KB: Well, I feel like it needs to be acknowledged straight off the bat that we both went to the same hippie school. We were both lucky enough to attend a liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota, called Macalester College, where I’m assuming that we both fell asleep to the same sounds of the 2:00 a.m. drum circle.
EM: Oh yes. Nightly.
KB: All of our clothing was hemp, and we played Ultimate Frisbee day after day. It’s kind of a unique place to be formed.
EM: It was wonderful. I’m really grateful for having gone there.
KB: Well I’m sorry to be starting with the terrible right off the bat, but when I was reading your work I was really struck by the fact that you were only two years out of college when you got a diagnosis that no one expects—especially at 24. Would you mind telling me about what happened?
EM: Yeah! So, I had been feeling kind of bad for a few years, and it was one of those things where I kept going to the doctor and they kept saying, ‘We don’t really know what’s wrong with you. Some of your testing is inconclusive.’ And I ended up ultimately with, like, a Vicodin prescription and them saying, ‘Well, come back if things get worse.’
So I was, you know, twenty-three at the time and I just moved to San Francisco, and it was, like, that dot-com-boom-late-90s where David Bowie was playing at the Pets.com launch party. And so all I wanted to do is just go out and party and I was like, ‘Working is awesome!’ Like, little did I know.
So I didn’t really slow down. Like, nothing much happened except I just didn’t feel good. And eventually what happened was I had some symptoms that turned into this strange rash that got me to the E.R., and that got me into the hospital. And then after two weeks of testing, they finally figured out that it was all due to the fact that I had this mass in my chest that turned out to be cancer.
KB: So you’re suddenly a 24-year-old with stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Just trying to figure out what those words mean, I imagine. And you write in your book that cancer just kept showing up. That wasn’t the last time that H just continued to present more challenges to you.
EM: No. So I was really fortunate. I had a year of chemo and radiation, and went into remission in 2001.
And ten years later, my college roommate—one of my closest friends from college—was diagnosed with cancer that came very quickly. It was very advanced when they found it, and she passed away about three months later.
KB: Did you immediately start using your art to process this? Or was this something that kind of came over time?
EM: No. Well, so what was really interesting is that after I was sick personally, the way that I responded to it and the way that my psyche decided to deal with it was to basically pretend that it didn’t happen. I really wanted to put it behind me and not think about it, and not identify as a cancer survivor, and I didn’t want it to define me. And I really turned to a life that was essentially not informed by my illness at all.
I think I’m the only person in history to have cancer and then go into advertising.
KB: This world may not exist, but I’d like to create it.
EM: Exactly. That writing commercials was the best application of my talents.
And, you know, I needed health insurance, and I wanted to be creative, and I was afraid. It was before the ACA…
KB:The Affordable Care Act.
EM:Yep. You know, you basically couldn’t get an individual policy if you had a pre-existing condition. And so I went into advertising a.) because it was a way to be creative and b.) because it was a way to get health care. And so I had a 10-year career doing that. And cancer was not a part of my life and I wanted it that way. And when Aimee got sick—that’s my roommate from college—it was like a delayed reaction for me. Yeah. Somehow her getting sick was like a slap in the face to me. Like, ‘OK this is real and it’s not something that you can run away from and pretend didn’t happen.’ So her being sick was really a catalyst for me to do a lot of different things. It was partially what actually inspired me to start the company that I now have, and to start making cards, and to start writing and illustrating. And one of the things that I was really struck by during my own illness and then again during hers, in a different way, was that we don’t know what to say, and sometimes there isn’t anything good to say…but people really go for some wacky places.
KB:Oh my goodness, yes!
EM:I’m trying to think of a politically appropriate way to say it, but really reach for some wacky stuff, and get-well cards didn’t help.
KB: I am thrilled to hear you say that. What comes to your mind when you think of that? Like some of the get-well cards you may have read.
EM: Well, it’s so weird to get a “Get Well Soon” card if you might not. It’s like a challenge. Like, ‘Oh! I’ll try.’ Look…Cool. Alright.
KB:I’m just thinking of the sheer volume of ones that said, like, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
And then my friends would just write in ‘of your colon’ and they would just have to add little things to it.
EM:Like, ‘With sympathy.’ And you’re like, ‘Am I dead already? Is this what it’s like? Is this it?’
KB:There’s a funny thing where they want to give you compassion—too much compassion—and you’re already being eulogized. Too little, and you’re, like, ‘Seriously?’ It was bad actually.
EM: Right. Because some of the cards are like, ‘You know you always wanted new boobs!’ They’re jokes about things like breast reconstruction or losing your hair or whatever. Like, ‘You get to wear cool wigs!’ And it’s like, “Yeah, you know, you don’t get to…brightside my trauma right away, and wigs are expensive, and, like, no fun.’
KB: Some of the worst things come out of people’s mouths. I have some ones that come to mind, but I’m curious, what are some of the humdingers that people have said to you?
EM: Oh my gosh. I remember…this was back in the days of answering machines. And I remember coming home, and it was a friend who I hadn’t heard from in months. A good friend. And I pressed play on the answering machine and it’s like ‘Hey I’m just calling because I’ve been thinking of you, because a really good friend of our family just died of cancer. So I’m just wondering how you’re doing…’
And you’re like, ‘Cool. Great. Well, still here.’
KB:‘Still sentient, thanks.’
EM: I mean, I ran into somebody who I hadn’t seen in a while, and obviously I was going through treatment. I was bald. I looked like hell, you know. And they were like, oh you know, ‘What’s going on?’ And I just told them, and they said, ‘Are you going to die?’
And I was like, ‘Well, eventually. I mean…’
KB: ‘Spoiler alert: I don’t want to skip to the end too fast here but…I am mortal.’
EM:‘Of this? I don’t know. Maybe. We’ll see. Jury’s out.’
KB:Yeah. Someone recently said, “So, is cancer going to be the thing that kills you?”
It’s like, ‘I don’t know but something else might kill you in a minute, if you keep asking questions like that.’
Like, ‘Stay tuned for Season 2. I don’t fucking know.’
There are the people that reach for the worst acknowledgement of all, or there are the people who just say nothing.
I have found that grief and loss can be so isolating. I’ve had good friends just drop off the face of the earth the second they heard that I had terrible news. So what stops people from reaching out? Like, why is it so hard?
EM: It’s fear, you know. I had the same experience. Actually, the hardest thing for me about having cancer was the loneliness, because I had so many friends, especially because I was so young, just bail because they didn’t know what to do. And the fear of being inadequate is really what it comes down to. Is this fear that you are somehow going to make it worse? That you are going to essentially not be able to deliver to your expectations of what this kind of news brings up, you know? And I think we have a lot of ideas about what’s helpful, that’s actually not helpful.
And it’s easier than you think. Like, showing up and being there for someone is so much easier than you think, because people think that they have to have some sort of sage advice or perspective, or offer some kind of wisdom that’s going to make the person be like, ‘Oh my God you’re so right. I never thought of it that way.’ Or that they have to solve it, that somehow their presence and their involvement means that it’s going to be on them to provide some kind of solution that they don’t feel equipped to provide. And really, you don’t have to do any of that. All you have to do is be present and be willing to witness, like bearing witness to your friend’s suffering and just being there and that’s really all it is. It’s so much simpler than we make it out to be.
KB: The kind of loss that you’re asking people to witness is the loss of all kinds of different things. Loss of identity; loss of companionship; loss of community. The isolation goes so much more beyond just fear for yourself, but, like, your partner leaves you and then suddenly you don’t have any friends in common, or you have a miscarriage and then you’re always being invited to baby showers. We’re losing bits of ourselves all the time and we need each other to sort of reflect back to us the person we were or could yet be. Does that sound right to you?
EM: That sounds absolutely right. And I think, also, to help us remember that we’re still that person that we were before our diagnosis, in a lot of ways. You know, like, to treat us like we are still the same person? Because I think something else that happens is people start to treat you differently, or people assume you’ve lost your sense of humor, or you know, that you’ve turned some corner where they can’t relate to you anymore. And in some ways that’s true. But in other ways you’re still the same person.
KB: Yeah. You still want to know the plotlines of Bachelor in Paradise, or if you’re me right now, you’re watching every Hallmark Channel movie called Love Comma Christmas or Christmas at Pemberley Manor.
EM:Christmas Comma Love.
KB:You want to talk about that with your friends. You have this amazingly reassuring thing that you say to people. You say if you want to learn to be kind to others you have to be kind to yourself. Well, what did you mean by that?
EM: That’s something from one of Kelsey’s workshops. This is my co-author. She does these amazing empathy boot camps, where she goes into schools, and workplaces, and hospitals, and kind of teaches people how to show up. I think so much of what prevents us from reaching out is having these expectations for ourselves, and it’s OK to not know what to say and nobody expects you to know. Your friend doesn’t expect you to know what to say, and in fact saying, “I don’t even know what to say” is fine.
KB: Yeah, totally. In 2015, you started this special line of greeting cards, called Empathy Cards, that give people some totally amazing things to say to people like us. I was wondering if you could give me some of your favorites.
EM: Yeah, absolutely. One of our best sellers—and this one is particularly appropriate for this podcast—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.”
KB: That’s so good. I love that one. I also love, “I know there’s no normal to go back to, but I’m here to help you build a new one.” And then it just says, “I’ll bring snacks.”
How nice is that? I want snacks…and acknowledgment.
There’s also something we’ve talked about on the podcast before. It’s something that people do that I like to call “death by free association,” where people look at me and then they’re suddenly reminded that the world is awful and now that they think of it they have a third cousin who just died of leprosy, and they’d very much like to tell me about it. And I love that you actually have a card for this. Do you know what I’m talking about?
EM: Yes I do. It’s actually…I think it’s my favorite of all of them. That free association thing is so weird and it happens so often. This card says, “When life gives you lemons, I won’t tell you a story about my cousin’s friend who died of lemons.”
KB: Was there particular experience that inspired that particular card?
EM: There were just so many experiences of when people found out that I had cancer, they would want to share with me a story about someone they knew who had cancer and had died and it was like, you know, ‘Don’t tell me. Why are you telling me? This is not helpful.”
KB:‘I know you’re thinking it, but why are you saying it?’
EM:And I understand, like I have been in that place where you see the words coming out of your own mouth and you’re just trying to pull them back in. And I’m sure that some of the people were totally oblivious. And I think some of them were like, ‘Oh God, I probably shouldn’t have said that.’ Because actually hopeful stories that happen to someone you know are helpful. You know, a story about someone you read about on the Internet…not as helpful. A story about someone who died of the thing that you actually have…you might want to skip.
KB: I even found myself doing this the other day when I was trying to be encouraging. I was standing next to a friend, and we were talking about how awesome her neighbor is. Her neighbor had this really rough diagnosis. And has this colostomy bag, and is still, like, making everything work. And for anyone who doesn’t know, a colostomy bag is sort of, much of the contents of what was going to be in your stomach are now on the outside of your body, and it’s very awkward for a lot of people. Like, it’s kind of a private thing. And it was just like, I was so impressed that this person was really doing such a good job, being such a good dad.
And at that moment he was walking outside with his kid and walked past us, and me, just imagining myself to be complimentary yelled, “Wow, so you’re really rocking a colostomy bag!” And then I was like, ‘Oh dear sweet Jesus, what is wrong with me, like, this is a stranger. They don’t want to talk about their bag with you.’ I was ready to die. So yeah, I mean free association, even in a complimentary way, maybe it’s not always a win.
EM: It’s because we also are programmed to want to relate. That relating is how we connect, right? And so when someone says to you, ‘I have cancer.’ Yeah. You immediately are in your mental Rolodex, like, ‘How can I relate? How can I relate? How can I relate?’
So that’s where it comes from. I think is this knee-jerk, like, ‘Oh, cancer. I have something to contribute there.’ So deep in our life, we don’t even think about it. It’s like our lizard brain is like, ‘Oh, relating! I can relate!’ And I think a lot of the strategies that we use, actually, when we’re trying to figure out what to say and what to do, come from that place of ‘Well, this works great in other areas of my life.’ Being able to solve a problem in another part of life means that you’re, like, an effective person who can probably hold down a job. So your instinct is to be like, ‘How can I solve this? How can I help? What can I do? What can I say?’ Like, ‘How can I suggest another treatment? What if they didn’t think of this? How can I be helpful? How can I be useful?’
KB: You have this other category of card, too, where one of the other reactions is…minimizing. Where minimizers want to help you get perspective, because then you can get traction and get over it. You’re so good at framing this.
I had an experience just recently. Last week I had a scan and I was hopping onto the MRI machine and the technician…it’s always that awkward moment where they look at their little clipboard and they see you have something terrible. And then she just said, like, spontaneously, “Oh, but you’re so young.” And then of course, she felt terrible. So she, as if to make herself feel better, immediately said, “Well, at least you’re at such an amazing hospital.”
EM: At least. At least.
KB: Like, ‘Oh no, I love feeling like roadkill on a Thursday. You know this was definitely my plan for my life.’
But you’re you are such a big fan of asking people just to simmer down and to listen. And I love that you have this one card that says, “I’m so sorry you’re sick. I want you to know I will never try to sell you on some random treatment I read about on the Internet.” Was there a moment you can think of where someone really, like, instead of minimizing, just acknowledged your pain like this?
EM: Oh, absolutely. You know, my best friend was amazing. There were so many people that were just fantastic. And really, what it’s all about is just saying, ‘I’m here.’ Like, ‘I love you, and I’m here.’
And one of the things, you know, THE thing, really, that I was trying to do with Empathy Cards and with the card that you just read, is to create something that would make people going through a terrible thing feel less alone and feel like, ‘Yes, someone gets it. My friends get it. My family gets it. They know what it’s like to be me and to have all this stuff coming at me all the time. And it’s like they’re sitting here in the hospital bed with me instead of sort of peering at me from across the room.’
KB: Yeah, yeah. You really do believe that love is in all those little things.
KB:I can think of a thousand little things that made up the difference in my life. What are some of the little things that you hope that people might be able to learn to step in with love.
EM: It can be as simple as sending a text. I mean we’re talking about little, little things. One of the things that Kelsey does in her workshops, and we talk about this in the book, is a gesture wall where she has people write down the most meaningful things that were done for them at a time when they were going through something terrible. And she puts them all up on Post-Its on the wall. And the thing that is really striking about this exercise every time she does it is that it’s really small things—nobody is like, ‘They paid for my college.’ You know? Or like, ‘They let me move into their bedroom while I recuperated,’ or whatever.
It’s always really little things like, ‘They offered to pick up my kids from school once a week so that I could get to the doctor easier.’ Or, ‘They would bring me coffee from my favorite coffee shop every Monday morning.’ Or, ‘They would just check in.’ ‘Someone sent me funny YouTube videos every day.’ Like, they’re really little things that don’t take a lot of effort and that don’t require knowledge, or a Ph.D. in Psychology, or any kind of sage Pinterest wisdom.
KB:Yeah, just like theme socks. You got theme socks. I have ones that just say, “You can do it.” Oh my gosh, thank you theme socks.
EM:Yes. Just small and thoughtful.
KB:I mean I had friends…I had this friend who dresses up two stuffed gorillas and just puts them in different situations and sends me a picture. I don’t know how you came up with it.
I’m totally sold on the concept. But I could be going through the scariest day, and just little, little, little bits of love.
EM:I love people. And I think that’s where grace, and faith, and beauty really come in.
It’s not in the big stuff. It’s in the little gestures of love that connect us and make me feel like we’re all in this sort of shared human experience.
KB: I love that you just say your kindness is your credential. It’s your ticket in. Is that what you meant?
EM: That’s exactly what that means. You don’t need a Ph.D., or a qualification, or a course in how to talk to people who have cancer. You just need to be kind. You just need to care.
KB: Emily, it was so lovely talking with you today. Now tell me where people can find you online.
EM: They can find us at EmilyMcDowell.com, and we also are available in about 1,600 retailers. At the bottom of the website, in the footer, there is a link to our retailers page where you can actually look up a little map and see where you can find us.
KB: Perfect. We’ll put that up on our website too. If I had to boil my conversation with Emily down to one take away, it’s this:
We all have exactly what it takes to show up in the midst of people’s awful moments. Chances are there are people right in front of us suffering in silence. Miscarriage after years of infertility, the loss of a job, an empty nest, a divorce or bad breakup. A difficult diagnosis. It can feel impossible to know what to do or say.
But they need exactly what we have to offer—ourselves. So if you’re bouncing between reaching out or not…say something. Even something as simple as acknowledging the painful situation with, “What a year you’ve had,” or gifting them some motivational socks. So consider this your permission slip to be kind.
Not that you needed one. You seem nice. We all probably don’t need perspective, or explanations, or the latest results from a quick Google search.
We just need love. We need one another to reflect back to us that we are so loved. We are loved. And when other people show up, it feels like enough.
Julie: My name is Julie, and I’m from Edmonton, Alberta. People’s nerves can make them say funny things. One of the funnier moments that I had was when I was talking to a friend, and a woman that I did not know, who was friends with the woman I was talking to, came to sort of join our circle. I was in the middle of discussing a chemo treatment I was doing that week or whatever. As soon as she heard I had cancer, this woman who I had never met launched into this very long detailed story about someone who was doing some grad work in a morgue and went on to describe all about touching the dead bodies and what they looked like, and what they felt like, and it was just a very surreal moment for me because I wasn’t really sure how to interact with that person’s story. And it was sort of maybe a role reversal, because I wasn’t sure in that moment what to say.
Dee: The darkest day of my life was when my otherwise healthy 30-year-old brother became suddenly ill and rapidly deteriorated to the point of being placed on life support. And this was a time of feeling lost and helpless. But I’ll never forget the love of a family friend during that time. A musician friend drove across the country unbeknownst to us, and I encountered him in the family lounge just quietly strumming his guitar. He didn’t bring any advice. He didn’t bring any solution. And all I remember him saying was, “I’ll be in here praying for you.” It meant the world to us.
[unknown]My daughter who came to be with us when our son died is a cancer survivor. When she was four, she had A.L.L I was pregnant with her little sister, and I had more than one person say well if she dies at least you’ll have a new baby to console you, and you can have more children. Not helpful.
Jess: My friend brought me a blanket to keep me warm as I slept in the ICU waiting room while my dad was on life support. I didn’t ask her to do it, but she brought it.
She gave to me as a gift, after everything was over. That blanket was an incredible source of comfort in those times, and I still used today.
KB: Everything Happens is produced in association with North Carolina Public Radio WMC. Support comes from Faith and Leadership, an online learning resource, Issachar Fund, The Lilly Foundation, and Duke Divinity School. And so many thanks go out to my amazing team, Beverly Abel, Amanda Hite, and the Be The Change Revolutions team, and Jessica Richie. If you’re enjoying these conversations, please go to Apple Podcasts and post a review. And come find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @KateCBowler. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.