Empathy Advice + Gifts for When You Just Don’t Know What to Say

It's Because Love

This could be surprising, but I personally struggle with what to do and say when something bad happens to someone I love. I almost never say the right thing, and it’s mostly because I am so scared of saying the wrong thing. I’m always working on this (and this book by Emily McDowell helped a bit!), but I was very happy to hear about a new company that’s helping people like myself send love to people who need it.

Arona Martin, a local Chicagoan, is here to help. When her friend Jessica was diagnosed with cancer, she gave her gifts that helped Jessica immensely. From this experience, Arona founded It’s Because Love, a company that makes products to give to people who are going through cancer treatments. I was immediately drawn to this idea, and was able to interview Arona about Because Love. Read her interview below–it’s compelling and beautiful, and her story might make you tear up (it did for me).

It's Because Love

You started this company because you lost a friend to cancer; can you tell me more about your relationship and what made you decide to give gifts to her to help her cope?

I had known Jessica for many years when we worked at CROBAR, which was an incredibly popular nightclub in Chicago. She worked with me as a bartender while I was the event director for the club. She was about 10 years younger than me and we developed this incredible sister-like relationship and grew very close. We shared a passion for loving Chicago and randomly enough also Costa Rica, which is a destination I fell in love with when I was volunteering there, and then I was a bridesmaid in her wedding when she got married in Costa Rica a few years later.

When Jessica got sick, I felt so helpless, and I didn’t know what to say or do. So I bought a blank journal and filled it with all sorts of stickers, rhinestones, and thought-out prompts to help to her get thru the fight of her life. I used my art therapy background to create pages that would help work through wherever she was on any given day. For the blanket, I wanted her to feel loved at every moment. So I tied some ribbons to a blanket and put inspirational messages, memories, and prayer verses on it, and told her that I made her a hug, and anytime she needed it she could wrap herself in the blanket.

After Jessica’s passing, a group of about 25 of us traveled to Costa Rica to celebrate her life for a week. During that time I really felt inspired to continue the creative process that would allow myself and others to help make those difficult conversations with those dealing with cancer a little easier. It’s not until you have someone near and dear to you with cancer, that you are so unsure of what to say, ask or do for that person. The Love Heals Journal and Big Hug Lap Blanket came to life pretty quickly – they both allow people to customize these items with personal messages to personally hand off or mail to people in their lives who are recently diagnosed. I originally gave handmade versions of these to Jessica, and she absolutely adored them more than any words, typical gifts or bouquet of flowers.

Everyone communicates in different ways, especially under unique circumstances such as dealing with a friend or loved one struggling. I also noticed that the gift options in the marketplace lacked sophisticated quality and that personal touch – so that is how it started. Because Love is there to fill that gap!

It's Because Love

What are some other ways you recommend people to support a friend going through a hardship like cancer?

Be there and Love. That is what I suggest. There is never really the exact right thing to do or say when life gets ugly, so I think people just get scared and start trying to dish out advice, saying things like “hang in there” or “you got this,” which isn’t always helpful. Sometimes just being present, and loving them where they are is the best thing to do. We’ll never truly know what it’s like to be in their shoes, and the anxiety that comes with such a scary diagnosis. As women, we want to get up and start doing things on a checklist – organizing, planning, etc… which is all great, but sometimes just being that “3am phone call friend” who will be there to listen in the middle of the night is the best kind of support you can offer.

It's Because Love

What do you think some of the most common misconceptions are when it comes to supporting people dealing with cancer?

People assume our friends and family going through treatment don’t want to talk about it or that they know exactly what they need when they need it. I can tell you first hand that going through treatment can be very lonely and these people have much to talk about. I say just meet them where they are, and love them. If they want to cry, cry with them, if they want to scream, you scream too. There are so many feelings and so many ups and down when it comes to cancer, that it can be confusing.

Open ended questions like “let me know if you need anything” (although well intended) lead to a lot more stress than necessary. It leaves your loved one with the stress of thoughts like “am I asking too much?”, “am I being a burden?”, “does she really have time for this” etc. Instead, try “Can I bring over some dinner Tuesday?” or “Can I come do some laundry/sit with you/hang out”, or “take your kids to the movies Friday night.” Giving your friend or loved one a simple question to say yes or no to is easier than having them come up with a task, and time, etc. Of course, don’t be offended if you don’t hear back right away… understand that your loved one is being bombarded with questions, and voicemails, and texts, and their silence is actually just being overwhelmed. Text them again in a few days anyway, or end a text with “don’t worry about texting me back, I just wanted you to know you are so loved, and I am with you in this.”

So, just be there for them as much as possible; they will love you forever for that, and offering to offload small tasks always helps as well. Those going through treatment don’t want to feel like a burden, but much of the time they won’t turn down the help. So please offer your love and support!

It's Because Love

What are some messages you recommend writing on the message tags for people who just don’t know what to say?

This is a hard one, as every message is unique and personal to the one writing it. For me, I always tell them how much I love and support them. Let them know exactly what you love about them (we don’t really do that enough in life do we?)! It’s also always nice to include a compliment about what you admire about the person, as those traits will likely help them pull through those trying times. I like to put a funny memory, or inside joke. That way, when they read it, they smile.

It's Because Love

Do you have any recommendations of resources for people who are “bad at empathy”?

I love ‘There Is No Good Card For This’ and think that’s a perfect read/handbook for life in general. The truth is, most people don’t know what to say and the first instinct is to give advice based off their own experiences. However, if you feel like what you may say is the wrong thing, I’d take a deep breath, and just be yourself. Asking questions never hurt anyone, and just say it from a place of love and compassion. Listening without judgement is also the perfect thing to do as well. Just being there for that person is enough, really, it is!