To Have and To Hold: The Comfort Cub continues to console grieving mothers

Sixteen years ago Marcella Johnson (nee Millot) experienced one of the toughest things a parent can endure — the death of a child. Since then, the La Jolla High School graduate has been helping other mothers in the same situation heal and cope.

But Johnson’s efforts don’t include peer counseling or support groups, or sending flowers or cards, but simply making a teddy bear. She founded The Comfort Cub organization to distribute the bears.

Although The Comfort Cub only received its 501(c)3 non-profit status on May 1, almost 7,000 Cubs have already been distributed over the last 16 years to hospitals and care centers to reach women experiencing the emotional pain, but also the lesser-known physical pain, that comes from losing a child.

Comfort Cub founder and La Jolla High school graduate Marcella Johnson (nee Millot)

“When I was six months pregnant with my fourth child, I found out (the fetus) had Osteogenesis Imperfecta type II, which prevented the bones in his ribcage from growing at the normal rate, so his heart and lungs were being crushed. We were told he could die any day,” Johnson told La Jolla Light. “Doctors said if I were lucky enough to make it to term, he would likely die during the birth process. The best- case scenario was that he would be born alive and die shortly thereafter. So every day from then on, the only way I knew he was alive was to feel for kicks.”

Against the odds, her baby, named George, was born alive, and lived just long enough for Johnson to look at him and say she loved him. “Then he died in my arms,” she said.

Immediately following George’s death, “I experienced emotional pain, obviously, but what surprised me is that I had strange physical symptoms; my arms ached. I thought at first I bore down too much when giving birth, but I knew that wasn’t it.”

One day, when Johnson was visiting George’s gravesite with her father, he handed her a terra cotta pot with flowers in it. “When I held that pot, at that weight and size, my arms immediately stopped aching,” she said.

Johnson, now an Encinitas resident, began doing research on possible physical sensations that come with grief.

“I read about mothers who experienced aching arms and chest pains, and to fix that, one woman carried around bags of flour or carried produce the size and weight of a baby; another woman wrapped a blanket around a pineapple,” she said. “It sounds cuckoo, but unless you’ve been in the shoes of someone who’s lost a child — you are so broken and in so much pain and your body is calling out to hold something — you wouldn’t understand. I completely understood why these women did that.”

La Jolla High School graduates Marcella Johnson (nee Millot) and Susan Heck (nee Choisser) with their weighted teddy bears, called Comfort Cubs.
La Jolla High School graduates Marcella Johnson (nee Millot) and Susan Heck (nee Choisser) with their weighted teddy bears, called Comfort Cubs.

To offer women who’ve experienced that loss something more dignified, Johnson partnered with best friend and fellow La Jolla High School graduate Susan Heck (nee Choisser) to establish The Comfort Cub, producing teddy bears that weigh five or six pounds.

“I thought it wouldn’t be unusual for a woman to have a teddy bear — you win them at the fair, you get them on Valentine’s Day — but these could be something she could carry when she’s alone to give her a sense of calm,” Johnson said.

And because everyone grieves differently, recipients could also “throw it on the ground and stomp on it because they are so angry,” she said.

Using the money she and her husband, Matt, had set aside for baby George’s clothes and diapers, Johnson started hand-making teddy bears weighted with split peas and taking them to the San Diego Hospice’s Perinatal Program, which assists families that face an impending infant birth- and-death, but who decide they want to continue the pregnancy. The hospice program gives the bears to hospitals for mothers who go through their program. “Our hope was that no woman who lost a child in San Diego would ever leave the hospital empty handed,” Heck said.

From there, Heck and Johnson gave the bears to Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women and Newborns, and Rady Children’s Hospital. In addition to mothers who had lost an infant, the bears were given to mothers with children in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), Johnson said. “Their babies aren’t going to die, but they are still leaving the hospital after giving birth with empty arms.”

Heck shared the story of an appreciative bear recipient from many years ago who just got married. “She said the bear she received after she lost her son was placed at the altar at her wedding so her son could be represented,” she said.

Johnson said she met a woman who wanted to give a Comfort Cub to a friend whose 21-year-old son had died in an accident. When Johnson explained they were designed for mothers of newborns, the woman replied, “No matter how old a child is, they are always their mothers’ babies.”

With a growing pool of women wanting a Comfort Cub, funds ran out for providing the bears for free. Now they are available to purchase for $49.95. “With every purchase, a large portion of the proceeds go to making more of them and sending one to someone who cannot afford a bear,” Johnson said.