Under the Microscope
5:45 pm
Thu April 4, 2013

Addressing death through a greeting card

When Regina Holliday’s husband, Frederick Allen Holliday II, went to the hospital in 2009, he was already at the end stages of kidney cancer.

The next two months were “a roller coaster,” she recalls. But during that time, Holliday remembers receiving a lot of cards from friends and loved ones.

Mostly of the “get well” type.

When her husband went into hospice, though, Holliday says the cards – and the communication in general, for that matter – basically stopped.

“It seemed like people didn’t know what to say. And we’d occasionally get a ‘thinking of you’ or a blank card,” says Holliday. “Sadly, we even got a couple ‘sympathies’ cards.”

Holliday recently spearheaded an effort to create a line of cards to fill that gap, ones focused on those in hospice.  Sure, a card is a card, but she sees the potential to address a broader problem. Having cards to facilitate those conversations, she hopes, could help change the culture around death and dying.

“Right now, a lot of people just don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything at all,” says Holliday. “People don’t want to say the big D-word. Or talk about what’s going to happen next. And because of that, we actually often leave our dying friends and family alone.”

So, Holiday went to the nation’s biggest card-maker  in hopes of addressing this.

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At any given time, Hallmark has some 20,000 types of cards in circulation, with the selection depending on the store and region. A spokesperson with the Kansas City-based company says having cards that address difficult situations is no foreign concept to the company, either.

“There are lots of cards that are about offering care and concern, and hoping for a good day, and praying for you if there’s  a religious aspect that would be helpful,” says Hallmark spokesperson, Linda Odell. “We really do feel like we already have cards that meet the need.”

Hallmark is familiar with Holliday’s hospice card effort and has issued a response. The company fixed its online search engine, for example, to make it easier for people to find cards under a “hospice” or “end of life” search (previously, a search would give no results, or by accident, bring one to ‘tree of life’ Bar and Bat Mitzvah card options).

Odell says about 15 years ago, the company started more overtly addressing ‘difficult times’ with cards. In recent years, the company launched a line that specifically touches on chemo therapy, recovery, rehab and other tough situations.

Odell says she recognizes the power of a greeting card, too, and what it can mean for someone at the end stages of life. As her own mother died of cancer in hospice 14 years ago, she recalled receiving quite a few meaningful notes.

“Most of them were ‘thinking of you,’ ‘I care about you,’ general messages. Many of them, people who sent the cards also added a note…and those cards did in fact open the conversation,” says Odell.

Odell says she also recognizes that each person’s experience is different.

“Bless her [Holliday’s] heart for leading the way,” says Odell.

But she adds that Hallmark reflects what people are talking about, rather than “picking up the flag and leading the charge.”

“We’re always listening, but we’re listening to a lot of people. We’re talking to a lot of people…and we are always paying attention,” says Odell. “As people are more open about talking about things, yes we reflect what they’re talking about. But we’re a mirror of that…There are isolated data points and we certainly take that into consideration, but this is a very sensitive topic.”

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Holliday says the cards Hallmark does offer don’t quite fit the hospice mold.

“One’s like, ‘cancer is tough but you’re tougher’…You don’t say that to somebody who’s dying of cancer,” says Holliday. “Because they’re dying of cancer. They’re not fighting the fight anymore. Let’s embrace the end of life and love each other.”

Holliday is also familiar with the region around Hallmark’s home base. She ran the JayHawk Bookstore at the University of Kansas between 1997 and 2001. And she has some of her own card ideas and themes that she could imagine being added to those racks, all under the overt category of “Hospice:”

I’ll miss you.

I wish I could be with you.

I wish I could finish this race hand in hand but I can’t and we always loved you.

We’ll never forget you and how much you’ve changed so many lives that will always affect us all.

“One of the hardest things is the wish that you could take this, that you could take this from them. You can’t. So a card that will address that,” says Holliday. “The kinds of things you want to hear, that open up the bridges, the conversation that’s just missing right now.”

Humor can hit the spot, too.

“My husband’s friend from high school actually designed a homemade card when my husband was in hospice which was great,” says Holliday. “It was based on the doodles they used to do in high school of each other. It was really funny, about this battle between two stick figures and how it kept escalating. And it was funny and hilarious, but it was a card about dying.”

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