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  • Writer's pictureJessica Schaffer

Death Is Not a Niche Market: Why I Believe in the Power of Candid Thinking of You Sympathy Cards

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

I lost a friend today. It was a hard death. Not just in the sense that she suffered in her final days, but also in that she denied she was dying until the very end. No will. No Advanced Directive. No arrangements for who would care for her cats after her passing. No arrangements, period. Even though she had received a late-stage cancer diagnosis with a poor prognosis over a year earlier. Even though the cancer continued to ravage her body in spite of every chemo protocol and experimental drug she threw at it.

I’ve heard it said that we meet death in the way we need to. I don’t doubt that. Nor do I judge the way this friend met hers. Still my heart breaks for the magnitude of her resistance. And I can’t help but bristle at the fact that her death exemplifies a broader cultural denial of death.

I find this denial to be deeply troubling. So much so that I feel compelled to call it out. To challenge the way we sweep death aside as a tiny slice of the human experience. A thing that happens not to us, but to other people. It’s crazy really that we cannot normalize and center death in the fabric of our living. After all, it is the only guaranteed experience every single one of us will encounter in life.

I guess I should back up a step and add a little context here. Like the fact that my beloved partner of 25 years died a year and a half ago. That she knew she was dying and walked towards it, not quite without resistance, but with recognition and resignation. And that I midwifed her in the process of dying.

So, death and loss and grief are familiar landscapes for me.

When Patrice died and my heart landed in acute grief, I was already deeply aware of how unprepared our social structure is to hold those of us who are grieving, who are dying, or who are supporting loved ones in a death process. It’s an awareness that has grown more poignant with each passing day.

Here’s the thing about death and dying and grief that no one can prepare you for. It cracks you open and invites you to go deeper, to look closely at the things that have been resting in layers within you, waiting for excavation.

The autumn before Patrice died, I was musing aloud one day about how fun it would be to draw on an iPad. Mind you, I had never drawn before in my life and had no innate talent to do so! So, I wrote off that whim as far too expensive to justify. But she heard something in my musings, and for the holidays, she gifted me with an iPad. Ten days later, we learned she was dying.

In my acute grief, I put the iPad away and did not pick it back up until 9 months later. And for reasons I may never fully understand or be able to explain, I began drawing. I felt as if an ancient memory was finding its way to the surface, and something new and beautiful was emerging.

Through drawing, I found myself exploring the contrasting elements of life: the light and shadow, the fear and joy, the brokenness and simultaneous expansion of being human. In a nutshell, the cyclical dance of life and loss and grief.

I felt moved to carry these images into a line of candid thinking of you sympathy cards and greeting cards that honors the challenge, pain, joy and beauty that weave through all of our life experiences. Without doubt, these cards are inspired by my own process of walking through grief, recognizing how hard it is to hold others in their pain without trying to erase, fix, or soften the sharp edges of their experiences.

And the consistent theme that I have encountered while bringing these cards into the world is that people struggle to look at the grief cards. Shopkeepers go for the messages that celebrate life and love, but avoid the ones that name adversity and loss. Retailers and greeting card industry experts talk about my line as a “niche” market. Because the cards don’t shy away from naming what is challenging in life.

And every time I hear that response, that I have a limited audience, a small slice of the consumer spectrum that will be drawn to my messages, I get confused. How is it possible that a thing (like loss and death) which is so present in the background of all of our living, can be considered a “niche” market? Even as we live in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 15 million people worldwide to date, how can we pretend that death is not an everyday occurrence?

I think about all of us struggling to make sense of a world that is morphing in unexpected ways right before our very eyes. Systems and institutions that are imploding and dismantling. Climate crisis and weather pattern shifts that stir our existential angst. If we are paying an ounce of attention, we cannot deny that death, in all of its many iterations, is here with us. It sits with us at the table. Death is not a niche. It belongs with every one of us. It will touch every one of us, through loss of loved ones and through our own eventual demise.

I often imagine what would it feel like as a collective to accept death as an active part of living. To resource ourseIves in the face of death’s inevitability, rather than spending our energy trying to avoid it at all costs. And I can’t help but wonder, if we lived in a world that allowed death to exist in full color, what would my friend’s death have looked like? Would she have resisted it right until the very end?

I’ll never know the answers to those questions, but I’ll continue to uphold the possibility of a world that is unafraid to name and touch death. That recognizes it as a worthy partner in the dance of life and love and even, joy. My question to you is, what would it take for you to do the same?


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