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First Person: Emily McDowell on Fear and Humor (Video Interview)

How do we help when we don't know what to say?

Photo of Jim Rosenberg
10 17

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Emily McDowell struck a chord when she introduced a different way of reaching out to people when they are sick, dying, or grieving. Her line of "empathy cards" drew national media attention and millions of online shares. I talked with Emily to learn a bit about why these conversations are so hard to start and how the right kind of humor can open the door.

Emily is the founder of Emily McDowell Studio ( She has a new book on empathy and illness, "There is No Good Card for This," coming out in January 2017 with Harper Collins.

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"First Person" is an experiment we are trying during this challenge to see how we might use video interviews to add inspiration and spark conversation. Let us know what you think!

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

How do you reach out to people who are at the end of their lives? Do you have a way you open the door to conversation? Do you have ideas for how others can break through the walls that can make the end of life a lonely experience for the dying and for families? And... do you have any funny stories from an end of life experience? Want to share those?


Join the conversation:

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Great share Jim.  Thanks for posting!
What if there were cards designed for someone who is at the end of their life to share with  friends, inviting them to remember who they really are, using humor?  As Emily points out in the video it is sometimes hard for friends to look past the disease and this new reality, and one who is ill might be identified as different from their regular self.  Maybe an intervention which reminds others that they are still the same person, and they would love to hang out etc. etc.?  Maybe using humor to acknowledge that it is hard for others might break the ice?  It might seem odd but I wonder if it might open some doors?  

Photo of Jim Rosenberg

Thanks Bettina. What a great idea -- turning the process around and giving those who are dying "permission" and a tool to reach out to their community. It feels like humor could be the device that would make it much easier to bend the typical social rules about asking for the help you want and need. Which makes me realize you've brought up a whole area to discuss further: Why is it so hard for most of us to ask for exactly the help we want? How can we make that easier at end of life? 

Photo of Hattie Bryant

One physician friend who often has to tell people that they are dying had a patient say to him, "Are you trying to tell me to sell my furniture this week, this month, this year?"  That made both the physician and the patient laugh then the physician felt he could go ahead and tell the truth:  sell in the next six months. 

Photo of Jim Rosenberg

Authentic humor that opens the door for conversation :-)

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Great share indeed Jim!
I like your suggestion Bettina. Last summer I was asked to say a few words at the cremation of a dear friend. As I talked about her, I could not help mentioning how stubborn she could be sometimes and many of the people present smiled as they all could relate to this; they all remembered how stubborn and bossy she could be and we all loved her for that too. But even with her, I often told her that she was stubborn and it became a "thread".
To Emily's point about the distinction the person and the sick person, I think that something I always tried to not change my behavior because this friend was sick. A couple of times, I got irritated and I told her what I thought. After these episodes, I felt bad. Not only because I usually don't like losing my temper, but also because I thought that she was sick. Yet, I realized that this was important to her that I just kept being with her the way I was with everyone - sick or not sick. 
I also think it opens up an interesting question about "who is our regular self"... 

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

HI all.
A-L  - I like this - Opening the question about "who is our regular self".  As much as someone who is sick feels like their "regular self" I think others might see them differently if they see their needs have changed.  I think Emily points out that some needs stay the same -  ex. friendship.  I have also had experiences where I have said something to an ill friend and then was self conscious about it.  It is hard and I think particularly hard when one feels alone in their head in those moments.  Friends and family members might be in despair and feel badly about that in light of the situation that the other person is facing. 

I know of a local hospice that doctor friends have said provides excellent care for patients and  families.  I checked out the website and noticed that they have a shop/cafe onsite for both patients and visitors.  I generally think of hospital gift shops as places where only visitors stop in for balloons, snacks and cards etc.  I like the idea of patients accessing these places perhaps for cards that they can give to their visitors or send to friends/family.   Or how about a volunteer who visits patients who cannot get around, with a cart of stuff including cards?  

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi Jim.  I think that is one of the million dollar questions.  "Why is it so hard for most of us to ask for exactly the help we want?  (I would add need.)  How can we make that easier at end of life?"  A topic worth exploring over a long dinner - maybe at one of theseā€¦..

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