Have you ever had a friend that keeps telling you, “you need to meet so and so.” Well, a friend of mine has told me for years that I needed to meet her friend, Marcella Johnson, who is the founder of the nonprofit The Comfort Cub. The stars finally aligned and we had a conversation last week that was supposed to last for forty-five minutes and when I looked at my clock and saw that two hours had passed I was in awe. She was beyond worth the wait and such an inspiration.
In 1999, Marcella’s fourth child, George died shortly after he was born from congenital heart disease. Marcella used her grief as fuel to help others who were suffering from broken heart syndrome and trauma in her creation of the nonprofit the Comfort Cub.
Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what The Comfort Cub does?
Marcella Johnson: The Comfort Cub is the world’s very first weighted therapeutic teddy bear. After I lost my newborn son George in 1999 due to congenital heart disease we developed the Cub to help other mothers who suffered from the loss of their infant. The Comfort Cub is specially weighted and is intended to simulate the weighted comfort of cradling a newborn. While the initial intent of The Comfort Cub was for child loss, research now shows it provides profound relief for any traumatic event. This includes having to leave the hospital while your baby is still in the NICU, the loss of a spouse, parent, loved one or beloved pet. It has also been effective for occupational & autism therapy, adoptions and those experiencing divorce or traumatic loss. Due to deep touch pressure, holding The Comfort Cub triggers the brain to release the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, which causes the body to relax and feel comforted.
Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to start The Comfort Cub?
Marcella Johnson: Leaving the hospital empty handed, with nothing in my arms was one of the worst parts of the whole experience of losing a child. It was doubly heartbreaking because when it was time to be discharged my husband took all my things and went to get the car. I was in the elevator next to a woman both of us had just delivered and she had balloons, flowers, her baby boy and I had nothing to hold, it was so painful. Then when we were both wheeled outside to pick up her husband has the video camera, the balloons, and the joy. I just wanted to die. Then my husband pulled up and to see his pain looking at this happy new family was so hard, watching him suffer. We just drove off in silence.
What happened when we got home was that the emotional pain felt like an open wound. My chest literally hurt and my arms ached and no massage or Tylenol made it go away. There was a dull ache in my heart and I thought I was losing my mind. Twenty years ago people didn’t know about Takotsubo Syndrom, also known as broken heart syndrome, but research eventually proved that I wasn’t alone.
A week after the funeral I asked my dad if he would meet me at the gravesite and he had this beautiful pot of flowers to leave at the grave. When I held the pot the aching in my heart and arms went away. I was sure I was losing my mind. Then I began doing my own research on grief and discovered women who were grieving would hold sacks of flour or carried a pineapple wrapped in a blanket and realized that the pot was about the weight my child would have been.
I had asked people to donate teddy bears instead of flowers in baby George’s name that we would bring to the local Children’s Hospital. We had a lot of teddy bears and about four months after the funeral I saw a Build a Bear and I went to the manager and told him my story and that I wanted to try to create a comfort bear for other women like me. He told me he would help me after work and to go and buy all the split peas that I could find. We opened up the bears and filled them with 6.7 lbs of lentils (baby George’s weight) until we got the weight just right. The following year we started the organization because I was determined that I am not going through this in vain and if I can help just one other woman than I will be satisfied.
Charity Matters: Tell us a little about How you started The Comfort Cub after the prototype?
Marcella Johnson: Helping to me is second nature. I wanted to make sure that no woman in San Diego left the hospital the way that I did. My husband and I started a fund with the money that we would have spent on baby George. So instead of the money to buy diapers and formula, we bought teddy bears, ribbons and spilt peas. A hospice organization asked for ten bears and the Children’s Hospital asked for twelve. I got my girlfriends together and we started an assembly line.
I realized early on that this doesn’t belong to me but I am simply a steward of this. The way people have responded to this bear is so much bigger than me. The reaction from parents and people who have gone through trauma has been so inspiring. Unfortunately, when there has been a tragedy we have sent the bears. My sister lived near Sandy Hook and showed up at the office with the bears. The office manager said they had received 60,000 teddy bears and didn’t need another bear. When she told my story the office manager said she would hand deliver each Comfort Cub to tall of the parents of Sandy Hook victims. Then the parents of the teachers who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary requested the bears. We made three hundred cubs for the grief group of the Vegas tragedy and just this past week we delivered bears here in San Diego for the recent shooting at the temple.
Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?
Marcella Johnson: Our biggest challenge is to get people to understand. Twenty years ago people didn’t know about the physical effects of grief and Takotsubo Syndrome. People can sometimes feel overwhelmed by helping women who have lost children and they either get it or they don’t. The Comfort Cub isn’t about sadness but about hope and healing. People are much more interested in talking about trauma than death. Why it is uncomfortable for many of us to try and find the words for people who lost someone we can not turn our backs on those who are suffering.
There have been times when this work has been hard. When the economy changed and we had the financial crisis in 2008 funding became more challenging. I had three other children, was making the bears, distributing them and it was a lot. We had a Comfort Cub hotline where we offered them for free to anyone in the United States who had a need. The San Diego Hospice group ran the hotline and funded much of the program in the beginning until a few years ago when they closed down. In 2013, I officially started running everything and in 2015 we became our own nonprofit.
Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?
Marcella Johnson: This work is internal and in my heart. It is in my soul and I feel called to do this work. There are so many people that are grieving out there and we need to help them. I believe that I am supposed to be doing this work.
Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?
Marcella Johnson: There are so many ways….I hear from the hospital all the time the comfort and peace the cubs give to so many. The people who write on our Facebook page about what an impact the cub has made. I find out second hand because I do not directly distribute the comfort cubs. However, a few years ago I received an award and they brought out a woman who had lost a child and she was carrying something that looked like the velveteen rabbit, it was so worn and loved. I realized as she began to speak about what the comfort cub had done for her that she the loved thing she as holding was her comfort cub. It is just wow to realize the difference we have made and it takes your breath away.
Charity Matters: Tell us what success and impact you have had?
Marcella Johnson: Since we began we have given over 15,000 Comfort Cubs. So often we learn that these cubs are usually passed on to at least three people. People want to give their cub to someone else who is hurting and now needs it. When you do the math that is touching almost 45,000 lives. I have a friend who is a nurse practitioner and she was recently doing a physical exam. The woman undressed and had a comfort cub tattoo. My friend asked about her tattoo and the woman explained that she had lost a child and that the comfort cub literally saved her life and she wanted it tattooed to always have it with her. That was an impact that I never expected.
Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?
Marcella Johnson: Before losing a child I always thought it was best not to mention a person who has died’s name. I have learned that you do not want a loved one to be forgotten. I make it a point to always tell people that whoever they lost, mattered. Also, the more you can do to help someone who is grieving the better, it doesn’t have to be anything grand but just to let them know you care.
Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?
Marcella Johnson: My son’s passing changed my life forever. I wanted to know when he died where did he go? Where is my child? His death sent me on a quest to know more about my faith. It made me realize that we are not in control of anything. Life is short and we need to enjoy and celebrate all the goodness in our lives. Let’s go to the birthday parties, let’s go to the graduation parties and see our children in their plays. You need to tell people who are meaningful in your life that you love them and what they mean to you because it is fleeting. This is my journey and this is my life….
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