Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

So very sorry to hear that you are dying

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Over an abstract watercolour that hints at a setting sun, a Hallmark card expresses gladness that "our paths came together in this life" and vows, "You're in some of the best memories I have and you always will be."

The card, a 2014 addition to the company's "sympathy" range, is intended to be sent to people who know they are dying.

After decades of euphemism and denial, North America is rediscovering death. The greeting-card industry, which studies social trends carefully, is a useful window on changing manners. Editors and art directors at Hallmark's headquarters in Missouri say customers now want candor, even about terminal illness.

On shelf-sections marked "tough times" or "extended illness," there are messages about Alzheimer's -- or, in card-speak, "the twilight that fell on your loved one's mind." The word "cancer," long shunned, now appears on mass-market cards. Such frankness was last seen a century ago, when lives were short, health was precarious and loved ones routinely expired in the family home.

Prompted by research at conferences for grief counsellors, Hallmark -- which sells about half of all American sympathy cards -- now produces "grief support" messages acknowledging the loneliness of those bereaved a while ago. One card offers a listening ear "after the last casserole is finished and the phone stops ringing." There are cards nodding at once unspeakable events such as suicides or miscarriages.

Colours are becoming brighter, after decades of white lilies, pale roses and misty paintings of garden gates or ships setting sail. Explicit piety is giving way to fuzzy talk of spiritual comfort, as the number of mixed-faith families keeps rising. A notable exception is Hallmark's "Mahogany" line, which has African-American themes and images, and offers unabashed talk of Biblical wisdom and prayer.

Greetings cards must cater to aging baby boomers, who never accepted others' conventions and are not about to start. Empathy is in, formality is out. Pet death is a booming market, including cards to assuage guilt after an animal is put down -- dogs "just know" when they are loved, a card says, even when owners must help them "find rest."

Pure self-obsession does not sell, however. A Hallmark card that wailed, "Seeing you so sad breaks my heart," flopped.

Modern North Americans lead restless lives, with multiple careers and family trees of bramble-hedge complexity. Dutiful displays of affection are in decline, and those who once sent dozens of paper Christmas cards now use social media.

Sympathy cards are proving more resilient, however. Today, a Facebook user may note the passing of an aged parent, sending digital ripples across a dozen states. That prompts old friends, ex-colleagues, family or in-laws from previous marriages to show they care, via paper and ink.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 A9

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