Meet Marcella Johnson, a San Diego mother who turns the sorrow of losing her baby into the joy of giving comfort.
‘I had thought that heartbreak was a metaphor, but it actually exists’
In 1999, Marcella Johnson, a mother of three, lost her fourth baby the day he was born.
“I was not only emotionally devastated, but had this pain in my chest as if I had an open wound in my heart from front to back. I had thought that heartbreak was a metaphor, but it actually exists. On top of that, to my surprise, my arms ached as if I had done some heavy lifting. I could not figure out why.”
Johnson later found out that she had “broken heart syndrome,” or Takotsubo syndrome, brought on by the death of a loved one. This painful experience would later transpire into the invention of The Comfort Cub, a weighted therapeutic bear.
‘The instant I held it in my arms, the pain went away’
“One day, my father and I visited my son’s grave,” said Johnson. “He made me take home a flower pot. The pot weighed about 5 to 6 lbs. The instant I held the pot in my arms and against my chest, the pain in my arms and chest disappeared! So I brought the pot back home.”
“I found myself not wanting to put it down. ‘Have I just lost my mind?’ I thought.”
“In my living room, there was this pile of stuffed animals, which I intended to donate to the Children’s hospital. Looking at those stuffed animals while holding the flower pot in my arms, I had an idea of a weighted bear,” she said.
With help from a store manager of the predecessor of a Build-a-Bear store, Johnson made a few weighted bears stuffed with split peas. She then went to a gathering of social workers for local hospitals.
Very cautiously, Johnson introduced the little, heavy and furry bear to them, and quickly, it received overwhelming responses. The demand for the bears grew.
‘With love, from a fellow mom’
Johnson would give the bears for free to the social workers, who would then give the bears to grieving mothers they cared for.
Adding a touch of kindness, Johnson would hand write a note that goes with the bear. It reads in part “I know no words can be spoken or gifts given that can take away the deep pain you may be feeling. My hope in sending you this bear is that in some small way it will bring a little bit of comfort to your arms. With love, a fellow mom.”
By being anonymous, Johnson hopes that the receiver, no matter what her race, nationality, or background is, would be able to relate to the bear.
“I want them to think there are people out there who understand their pain, that they are not alone,” said Johnson.
Nurse: ‘It helped me more tenderly care for my patient’
JoAnne Auger, a nurse at Rady Children’s Hospital, Pediatric oncology department, sent Johnson a note of gratitude after a child died of cancer.
“A precious child takes a last gentle breath following a long, difficult battle with cancer. … Is there some last gesture to comfort a mother’s empty arms on the final walk out of the hospital? We are so thankful that we can say yes. … As one of those pediatric oncology nurses, my heart is filled with gratitude for these furry little messengers of comfort and love.
“We walked together out of the hospital doors, she holds the cub tenderly, resting her tear-stained cheek against its soft fur. … I hope too, that this little bear is a small step to help her begin to soften the jagged edges of her grief. I know this little bear has helped me more tenderly care for my patient.”
Expanding the Reach
When Johnson met with an estate planning attorney, she talked about her Comfort Cub project. The attorney was very excited and asked if there is a bear available for a friend who lost her 18 year old in a motorcycle accident.
Johnson replied, “Oh, I am so sorry, but these bears are for mothers who have lost their babies.”
The attorney immediately grabbed her hands, looked her in the eyes, and said, “No matter how old they are, they are always your baby!”
“Her words struck me,” Johnson said, “I’d never considered expanding the application of the Comfort Cubs. But my attorney really opened my eyes. Since then, we’ve been seeing more and more uses for the bear.”
Catholic Charities purchased the bears for birth mothers who were feeling the loss of a child even though they made the conscious decision to give their babies up for adoption.
Each member of a girl’s high school track team was given a bear because they lost a teammate when their car collided with a bus full of students on their way back from high-altitude training. The girls were able to sleep much better with the bears.
Elderly people who have lost a spouse or are suffering from dementia also find the weighted bears comforting.
More Helping Hands
Early in 2014, Johnson reevaluated the way her invention had been meeting demands, and she decided to team up with Susan Heck, a childhood friend, to turn The Comfort Cub project into a 501c(3) non-profit organization.
Johnson said, “The culture here is to give the cubs away. I never sold them personally. I want them to be free, but financially it’s not feasible. Now we can’t make the bears fast enough. There are people on the wait list.”
“By starting the non-profit, we hope to reach out to people who want to purchase and donate the bears to hospitals of their choice,” she said.
“As we go nationwide, even worldwide, we need people all over the world to donate,” Johnson said while pointing at a map of the United States, with bear symbols on the states where they have shipped the bears to.
Since its official launch in 2001, over 7,000 Comfort Cubs have given comfort to people all over the United States and faraway lands, such as Japan, China, Antarctica, Uganda, Russia, France, and Ireland.