Empathy for sale

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

My mum had a knack for friendship. A gift, really. I didn't inherit her easy ability to make and keep friends, alas, but I was a beneficiary of it for thirty years so I can't complain.

Her warmth, her humour, her ability to drink entire vats of white wine and never become obnoxious, all of these things made her a wonderful friend over her lifetime to so many people. (So, so, so many people. Over 400 came to her funeral, and dozens more wrote to us. Who has time for that many friends?? My mother, apparently.)

One thing that stands out in my memory of her is that she always knew the right thing to say to friends during desperate times, and she was never too scared or shy to say it. They could always rely on her to be there with a comforting word, a loving hug, a glass of pinot grigio, whatever they needed in that moment. Again: she had a gift.

Ironic, really, that the one person who would have known exactly the right way to comfort her and make her laugh after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer was, well, herself. The rest of us tried our damnedest but, as with most things, she was, and is, irreplaceable.

I was really moved yesterday when I read about this a new collection of "empathy cards" from one of my favourite illustrators, Emily McDowell (she of the best motivational poster ever. Or maybe the second best). Emily herself had cancer when she was younger and it's clear that these cards are deeply personal for her. You can read her thoughts about the collection on her blog.

When someone you love is struggling with something big and scary, it's so hard to find words. It really is. Some people just don't have that knack, and that's ok. The problem is that the fear of saying the wrong thing can lead to the conclusion that it's better to say nothing at all.

Don't be the friend who says nothing. Be a friend like my mum. Be there. And if you can't find the words, Emily has some you can borrow.


A tiny radiance in a dark place
My other favourite illustrator, and fellow beneficiary of my mum's friending super-powers
→ Need a laugh after all that? Me too. Here you go.

Images: Emily McDowell Studio

8 boats moored

  1. These are lovely.

    I think it's hard to say the right thing, but the gift is in the trying.

    I'm so glad you had so many people show up and/or write to you after your mum died. It's nice that she was so honoured, and that people wanted to tell you how much she mattered.

  2. These are great. I often find myself not knowing what to say in difficult times and no doubt saying the wrong thing even though I always mean it with the best intentions. It can be so hard to empathise when you've not been through something yourself.
    Your mum sounds like she was a great friend to so many people and I hope it makes you smile when people write and speak to you about her.

  3. introv.butterfly5 May 2015 at 13:13

    What a brilliant person she must have been. It's great to have someone like that in your corner, who knows just what to say and doesn't vanish when things go wrong.
    As for the cards, they really are meaningful and very different from the usual lines. (though I sometimes wonder.. do the classics, like "everything happens for a reason"&co, actually comfort some people or are they just things that others say when they're scared and have nothing better to offer?)

  4. I really love these, especially the "everything happens for a reason" one. Heard that a lot during dark days last year, still can't work out what the appropriate response is.

  5. I'm sorry but you're wrong, you're a pretty great friend. <3

  6. She was also best wife, Mum and sister and would have been best Granny had she been given the chance. xx

  7. Whenever you write about your mum she sounds just like the best person. So do you, I guess that makes sense.

    I just found I have cancer 2 weeks ago. It's bad but I will live, so I try to remain positive, but it is still the weirdest & scariest experience...
    These cards are so, so on point.

    1. Oh lordy, I seem to have completely missed this comment first time round and can't believe I didn't respond. I'm sure you'll never see this, but I hope you're doing well, and everything is a bit less scary and weird. Much love to you.