Marcella Johnson knows too well the heartbreak of child loss. Her son, George, died shortly after birth in 1999, and her grief was both emotional and physical. Beyond profound sadness, she felt pain in her chest and aching in her arms.
“Leaving the hospital empty-handed was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Johnson recalls.
To try to make sense of her pain, Johnson read books on grief and infant loss. Following such a tragedy, grieving parents can experience a range of physical and emotional pain, and even what’s known as broken heart syndrome, a stress-induced weakening of the heart muscle.
This is why self-care is important after the loss of a loved one. It’s also important to understand that everyone grieves differently.
“I kept reading that women who lose a child seek weighted objects to hold,” Johnson says.
For some women, it was a sack of flour, a pineapple or a weighted pillow. Johnson finally felt the physical relief she longed for when she picked up a terracotta flowerpot left on her son’s gravesite.
“When I picked that pot up and got it into my arms, immediately — I mean, immediately — that aching in my heart and in my arms went away, and I did not want to put that weight down,” she says. “Looking back, it was probably the perfect weight and circumference of holding a baby.”
Johnson decided to channel her emotions and do something to help other women process the kind of loss she had faced. She started experimenting with customizable teddy bears filled with dried split peas. She tied a gender-neutral purple ribbon around their necks and hand-wrote sympathy notes to accompany each one.
Johnson offered the stuffed animals to maternity wards at every hospital in San Diego; they were gratefully received.
Nearly 25 years later, “The Comfort Cub” has grown into an Encinitas-based nonprofit organization that ships weighted teddy bears to hospitals and individuals in need nationwide. Now manufactured overseas with four pounds of plastic pellets instead of peas, Johnson estimates the group has distributed more than 40,000 therapeutic bears to people experiencing all manner of heartache.
Scripps was an early adopter of Comfort Cubs in its birth centers and neonatal intensive care units. Andrea Norby, a labor and delivery social worker at Scripps Mercy Hospital San Diego, says the soft, weighted bears have become an important part of the hospital’s bereavement support.
Along with a memory box that includes a baby blanket, handprint and footprint kit and literature, Norby gives patients who’ve lost a baby a Comfort Cub as an expression of condolence.
“It helps them in their grief process,” Norby says. “It’s that extra something to hold on to, and it’s an extra layer of comfort for them.”
Norby recently gave a Comfort Cub to a teenage girl whose baby was delivered stillborn. The teenager had difficulty releasing the baby to a nurse, so the teddy bear gave her something calming to hug.
Comfort Cubs were developed in response to infant loss, but the weighted teddy bears have a universal appeal. The bears have been gifted to people with Alzheimer’s disease, people who’ve lost a beloved pet and kids who’ve survived school shootings or child trafficking. The nonprofit recently sent 250 cubs to school children in Maui affected by recent wildfires.
Most of the bears are donated to recipients, thanks to fundraisers and charitable donations.
“Our goal is to get the Comfort Cubs into the arms of people who are broken-hearted or are hurting or experiencing trauma,” Johnson says.
This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.