Third Act Podcast

Your first act is school, your second act is work, but have you thought about what you’re going to do in your third act? Join host Liz Tinkham, a former Accenture Senior Managing Director, as she talks to guests who are happily “pretired” – enjoying their time, treasure, and talent to pursue their purpose and passion in the third act of their life.

Share this episode

Inspire others to get more and to do more later in life.

Elevate your executive learning

Athena helps women achieve executive-level leadership expertise, polish their boardroom and executive knowledge, get closer to board seats, and make leaps in their careers.

The Comfort Cub with Marcella Johnson


On this episode, Liz talks with Marcella Johnson – Founder of the Comfort Cub. Marcella’s story is a bit different than the show’s usual guests in that Marcella didn’t follow the path of school, big career, and then pretiring into her passion project. Her third act was literally born the day her fourth child, George, was born in 1999.

George was born with a rare disease and died the day he was born. Marcella left the hospital the next day without a baby in her arms, and over the course of the next few weeks developed symptoms similar to a heart attack – achy arms and heart, but nothing a doctor could diagnose. A few weeks after George’s death, she picked up a planter and instantly felt better having the weight in her arms. She went on to learn that moms all over the world who had lost children were substituting weighted objects to ease the ache created by the lack of a baby. With this insight, she created a teddy bear — now known as the Comfort Cub — which she began to distribute to hospice centers and hospitals throughout her hometown of San Diego.

Today, The Comfort Cub is a non-profit organization that donates thousands of Comfort Cubs to moms all over as well as to anyone seeking therapeutic comfort. Join Liz for this very special episode as she talks to Marcella about her third and likely forever act to honor the legacy of her son, George.

2:36 Marcella’s Acts 1 and 2
5:20 The birth and death of George
8:30 The therapeutic benefits of the terracotta planter
13:04 Accelerating her grief
16:47 The initial Comfort Cub
21:53 “You seem a bit crazy”
25:15 Growing the Comfort Cub organization
28:59 Comfort Cubs for therapeutic use
31:50 It’s a real thing – Takutsubo Syndrome
36:11 Comfort Cubs helping during Covid-19

Connect with Marcella Johnson on LinkedIn. You can make a donation to Comfort Cub or learn more about the organization here. Learn more about Takutsubo Syndrome here.

If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe and share a review. Engage with more stories of those finding fulfillment in the third act of their lives on Liz Tinkham’s Third Act podcast at

Liz Tinkham (00:18):
Hi, this is Liz Tinkham and welcome to Third Act, a podcast about people embracing the third act of their lives with a new sense of purpose and direction. The third act begins when your script ends, but your show’s not finished. Hi everyone and welcome to Third Act. Today I talk with Marcella Johnson, founder of The Comfort Cub. Marcella’s story is a bit different than my usual guests in that she didn’t follow the path of school, big career, and then pre-tiring into her passion project. Rather, her third act was literally born the day her fourth child George was born in 1999. George was born with a rare disease and died the day he was born. Marcella left the hospital the next day without a baby in her arms. And over the course of the next few weeks, developed symptoms similar to a heart attack, achy arms and heart, but nothing a doctor could diagnose.
A few weeks after George’s death, she picked up a planter and instantly felt better having that weight in her arms. She went on to learn that moms all over the world were substituting weighted objects to ease the ache created by lack of a baby. With this insight, she created a teddy bear now known as The Comfort Cub, which she began to distribute to hospital centers and hospitals throughout her hometown of San Diego. Today The Comfort Cub is a nonprofit organization that donates thousands of comfort Cubs to moms all over as well as to anyone seeking therapeutic comfort. Join me as I talk to Marcella about her third and likely forever act to honor the legacy of her son, George. Marcella, hello and welcome to Third Act. Where do I find you today?

Marcella Johnson (01:59):
You find me today at my home office in San Diego, California. And that actually is my kitchen table.

Liz Tinkham (02:05):
Great, great. So we were introduced through a mutual friend in San Diego, a good friend of both of ours. Who’s in awe of you, I should say, and of the people that you’ve been able to help with The Comfort Cub. So I can’t wait to tell your story, but you know, you and I talked a few weeks ago about your story. And I realized that we kind of started right away with The Comfort Cub, but I didn’t get into anything about your first or second act. So we need to start with a couple quick background questions. So where’d you go to college and what did you end up doing when coming out of school?

Marcella Johnson (02:36):
Okay. So I went to UC Santa Barbara, Go Gauchos.

Liz Tinkham (02:40):
Are you born and raised San Diegan?

Marcella Johnson (02:42):
No, I’m from Massachusetts originally and I moved out of here when I was 12 years old. I moved to San Diego.

Liz Tinkham (02:47):
Oh, okay.

Marcella Johnson (02:47):
Yeah. So I feel like-

Liz Tinkham (02:49):
God’s country.

Marcella Johnson (02:49):
Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. It’s beautiful. But I have to tell you, I do feel like my roots are back East, for sure. I totally relate to people on the East Coast. So I went to Santa Barbara and I studied communications and while I was in school, I also taught English as a second language. So I actually went over to Japan, to Tokyo, and I was the company English teacher for Reuters, which is the British Shoes Information Agency.

Liz Tinkham (03:17):

Marcella Johnson (03:17):
Yep. Mm-hmm.

Liz Tinkham (03:18):
That must have been fun.

Marcella Johnson (03:19):
It was really fun. It was quite a learning experience. Let me tell you that.

Liz Tinkham (03:23):
Did you speak any Japanese or you just spoke English?

Marcella Johnson (03:26):
I spoke very, very little Japanese, enough that I could carry on a three minute conversation and get myself around in town. But no, that’s about it.

Liz Tinkham (03:33):
How did you end up parlaying that communications degree and teaching into a job at Hewlett Packard?

Marcella Johnson (03:39):
Well, my husband was going to law school in Northern California and I thought, you know what, I want to work in big tech. That’s the beginning of the Silicon Valley. And I was there right as it was starting to take off and Hewlett Packard Company. So I went into sales and marketing for them and I loved that company. I really did.

Liz Tinkham (04:00):
How long did you work there and what did you do?

Marcella Johnson (04:02):
I worked there for 10 years. I started out in the field in sales, in marketing, and then when I became pregnant with my first child, I decided that I wanted to be closer to home. And so did my husband, both of our families are from San Diego. So we moved back here and I was lucky enough to get a job in Rancho Bernardo and continued my marketing work there.

Liz Tinkham (04:23):
Yeah, that’s great because Hewlett Packard’s everywhere. So that was nice, you could transfer. I did the same because we were in Chicago, we moved out to San Francisco. I just moved with Accenture. So you’re the mother of five children. And at some point, you decide to take time off to be home with your kids. How did you come to that decision and at what kid number were you at? Because there’s a lot of kids. Yeah.

Marcella Johnson (04:43):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So it was funny. So I worked full time with my first child Henry. I worked part-time with my son, Charles, and then by the time I had my third baby, as much as I loved my work, it just didn’t make sense economically to pay for daycare and schooling and all that. And just about that time, my husband was an attorney and he was starting to pick up with getting higher in the company and able to earn a little bit more money. Also that we were blessed to be able to afford that. So that was just but really, it just, it was probably costing me money to go to work.

Liz Tinkham (05:20):
Yeah, I’m sure. I’m sure. So your fourth child George, was born with a rare disease called Brittle Bone Disease and died the day he was born. But from his death came the birth of The Comfort Cub. So talk about the ride down the elevator when you were leaving the hospital.

Marcella Johnson (05:37):
Like you said, he died the day he was born and leaving the hospital empty handed was one of the worst experiences of my life. And one of the reasons why, is that 23 years ago, they just didn’t have the same kind of sensitivity that they do today and protocols in place. So they had put me on the fourth floor, which was for women who were having surgeries, such as hysterectomies and cancer issues and things like that. And what happened was, even though you have given birth and you can walk out of the hospital, by law you cannot walk out, they have to put you on a wheelchair and wheel you out.
So my husband had picked up all of our stuff and my bags, any flowers I had, even my purse, I had absolutely nothing. And this young orderly came and brought me into the elevator. And when he brought me in, he pulled me in back like I was facing out. So when we got down to the third floor, which is labor and delivery, the doors open and there is an orderly with a young mom with a cute little baby boy in her arms with flowers and balloons and they wheeled her in right next to me. So now we’re-

Liz Tinkham (06:49):
Oh goodness.

Marcella Johnson (06:50):
It was so devastating to me because I had just lost my child. I was leaving. I had nothing to hold, nothing. And I was dying inside and I was in so much pain, but of course you don’t have any ill will towards somebody who’s doing well, but it was just the juxtaposition of my great loss and her great joy and bundle in her arms. And he was so cute and we talked all the way down and I kind of just got through that. But the hardest part for me was when we got out to the elevator, then the elevator and then they would drive you out to the driveway and the sidewalk where you wait for your husbands or whoever your family to pick you up.
And so she was out in front of me and her husband pulls up and he jumps out of the car and he’s got the video camera and they’re waving and they’re so excited and it’s just… I mean, it was just great for them. But then my husband pulls up and then he sees them, he looks at me and I, it was so devastating on so many different levels, but when you see someone you love that’s hurting, it’s very, very painful. And also you feel a little bit like you failed in some way. Your body failed. You were meant to come home with a brand new baby and start a brand new life with that child. And something went wrong and there’s nothing anyone could have done about it, but it leaves you heartbroken. And we just cried all the way home. It was just terrible.

Liz Tinkham (08:21):
And you said that your arms and your heart hurt for weeks following George’s death until you picked up a terracotta planter. So what happened there?

Marcella Johnson (08:30):
So just to be clear that, what happened was along, you’d expect emotional pain when you lose a child. But what was very surprising was the physical ailments you just talked about, my heart really hurt and my arms ached and when your heart is hurting and I felt like I had an open wound and the only thing that would make it feel better was for me to actually put my hand against my chest and apply pressure. Much like you would if something was bleeding. And that would give me some, a little bit of relief. But my arms also ached but with the heart, like I was saying, I went to the doctor because I was concerned. I thought, “Geez, what’s going on here?” And again, I had excellent care given to me, but the doctors were not aware what was going on.
It wasn’t until later that it was realized that what I was suffering was with something called Broken Heart Syndrome or stress-induced cardiomyopathy, which is brought on by acute grief. But at the time my doctor was like, “Hey Marcella, you’ve just had a baby. You’re going to feel all kinds of strange things.” And my milk was coming in and my hormones were all over the place. So I just left his office thinking, “Okay, this is all in my head. Not only have I just lost my baby, but I have a lost mind,” but you know what? All these years later, I realized that it really was something physically that was happening to me, but it was really hard to deal with and it was painful.
I just wanted to tell you too, that the Takotsubo Syndrome is in the news a lot now. But what the point that I want to make is that aching in my arms. Moms in the loss community understand this, and we call it Empty Arms Syndrome. And Takotsubo Syndrome has only gotten a clinical diagnosis in the last six or seven years and this Empty Arm Syndrome has no diagnosis at all, but just because it hasn’t been given a clinical diagnosis, doesn’t mean it’s something that doesn’t exist. And so this Empty Arm Syndrome can happen to any mother. I don’t know if it happens to men too. It possibly could. I’ve just only focused on women, but this is what is happening. Your body is literally aching to hold your child. Until you put something in your arms, that aching will not go away. So I just want to make sure that your listeners knew about Broken Heart Syndrome, but also this Empty Arm Syndrome.

Liz Tinkham (10:51):
We can put links to both of those in our show notes as well. So the terracotta planter, when you picked it up, did that feel good or how did you… what was the connection there?

Marcella Johnson (11:06):
Okay, so I was at a very dark place. It was about a week after my son’s funeral and I just did not want to be by myself, but I wanted to go to my son’s grave site and just, kind of just stand close to him. And I just felt so far away and so disconnected. And so I called my dad and I just said, “Dad, would you please meet me at the grave site?” And so we met together, he’d gotten there before I had and someone had sent this beautiful terracotta pot to the grave site. And when I got there, my dad was like, “This is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. You got to take it home with you.” And I was in such a depressed state. I was like, “I could care less about anything that you-”

Liz Tinkham (11:47):

Marcella Johnson (11:47):
“Yeah. Who cares? Who cares? I don’t need anything. I don’t want anything. I just want to be sad.” Just kind of… Seriously, it’s just, you just want to kind of get through it. But my dad was so insistent about me taking it home that I thought, “Oh my gosh, the only way I’m going to get him to be quiet now is if I take the darn pot.” So I just said, “Okay dad, I’ll take that.” And the moment that I got that into my arms, immediately, that aching in my heart and in my arms went away.
And the reason that I shared with you about that whole situation with my dad was that, I wasn’t looking for anything, I didn’t even want that stupid pot. But something happened, almost magically, I was like, “Oh, I cannot believe. I’ve been in so much pain for several weeks and this stupid cold hard thing is giving me comfort.” And now I really thought I started to lose my mind. And I found myself not wanting to put it down and that I wanted to carry it around with me. And my sister remembers me calling her and just saying, “Martina, I do not know what’s going on. I have gone nutso because this is giving me so much comfort.” And it wasn’t until I started reading books, I had three children that really needed me and they were six and four and two.

Liz Tinkham (13:03):
Yeah. They were little.

Marcella Johnson (13:04):
Little, little and so I realized that they needed their mom. And I decided that I was going to just expedite this grief. Period. I couldn’t take the time or couldn’t stand the pain of going through it. So I decided I was going to read every book I could get my hand on, excuse me. So that I could fast forward and just learn everything I needed. Now, I finally realized that there’s no way that you can speed up grief. And it’s unique to every single person. Some people never fully get over it. And I don’t think you ever… you never get over losing a child. That’s something that stays with you forever. But the acuteness of it can dissipate, especially if you work on it and you process it. But what I did find out was that in all these books that I was reading, that it can be a common phenomenon that women who lose a child, seek weighted objects to carry around and that that gives them comfort. And I thought-

Liz Tinkham (13:04):

Marcella Johnson (14:01):
Yeah, isn’t that interesting? And I thought, the first thing I read about, I read about three different women. The first woman carried around a five pound sack of flour, the second woman picked up a pillow, but she thought, “This isn’t heavy enough.” So she wrapped rope around it to give it more substance and heft. And the last thing that I read about was I read about a woman, it was her first baby. She had just had all of her baby showers and she was nesting and fixing up her nursery for her baby and was so excited.
And unfortunately she went into labor early and she ended up delivering a Preemie baby and 20 something years ago, that baby probably could live today, but back then they didn’t have the technology and knowhow and the baby ended up dying. And when she came home, she went up to the baby’s nursery, looked around at all of her beautiful things and left and went to the grocery store and came back with a pineapple, the exact length and weight of her baby. She took it into the nursery and she went and sat on the rocking chair, brand new rocking chair and picked up one of the baby blankets that had been given to her as a gift, wrapped the pineapple up in the baby blanket and sat in that rocking chair.

Liz Tinkham (15:21):
Wow, and rocked it.

Marcella Johnson (15:22):

Liz Tinkham (15:23):

Marcella Johnson (15:23):
I know. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, if I was someone and I walked in on this woman who had just lost a baby and she’s sitting there rocking a pineapple, I think we’d all think, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to call someone. This woman is losing it completely.'” But when I read that having experienced it myself, I thought, “This woman is not crazy. This woman is the opposite of crazy. This woman is trying to find a way to get herself out of this pain.”

Liz Tinkham (15:51):
And she’s trying to solve her problem. Right?

Marcella Johnson (15:54):
Exactly Liz. And it was a crazy way to do it, but it did help her. And I thought, you know what, if it’s happening to me and it’s happening to all these other women, we have got to get something to these women. We’ve got to get to them before they leave the hospital. Making that… Leaving the hospital without your child is one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. So at the time, we had just had the funeral and everyone wants to know how they can help and what they can do. And so I wanted to give people a task and I just said, “Hey, you know what, why don’t you bring a stuffed animal and we’ll donate it to a children’s hospital who helped me when… with my diagnosis and with my baby and everything.” So everyone brought stuffed animals. So in my living room right there, I had about 100 different stuffed animals and I had Teddy bears and giraffes and kittens and… And then it was at the hype of Beanie Babies. Do you remember Beanie Babies, Liz?

Liz Tinkham (16:46):
Yep. Of course, we had hundreds of them. Yes.

Marcella Johnson (16:47):
Yeah. Okay, great. So it was a total craze and I looked over and I thought, “Gosh, a Beanie Baby, it’s weighted.” And then it just dawned on me like, “Hey, what if we created a really, like a heavy teddy bear that could be given to people?” And one of the things that I liked about that, Liz, was that I wanted it to be something that if someone walked in and saw, they would not know the therapeutic value it had to that woman.
So if she wanted to take that teddy bear and wrap it in a baby blanket that she had attended for her child, and while she was alone in her house and she wanted to rock it or sing to it or whatever she needed to do, that nobody else would know, that would be a private thing. And it’s not uncommon for a grown woman to have a teddy bear. I mean, we all have them. And so anyhow, that’s where I got the idea. I just felt inspired at that moment and I thought, I just really did feel inspired to try to make a difference and try to make that Teddy bear for other women that would unfortunately suffer like I did.

Liz Tinkham (17:51):
So you told me you made a prototype at like a Build-A-Bear, and then you started trying to take them out to, was it originally to hospitals or hospice or where did you start?

Marcella Johnson (18:00):
Yeah. Well, I started at hospice and this was a precursor to build a bear workshop. And I went over there and like I said, Beanie Babies were kind of a craze. So when I went in and I talked to the, it was a guy actually, a manager, a really nice kid and I said, “You know what? I made a Beanie Baby type bear for my grandma. And so what I did was I filled it with split peas.” “I think that if you did that and we got a normal size bear, why don’t you come after work and we’ll work on this together.” And I was just like, “Oh my gosh, thank you so much.” And so I went to the grocery store and I bought every single split pea that ever existed

Liz Tinkham (18:37):
To make for different weights, right?

Marcella Johnson (18:39):
Yeah, yeah. For different weights. And he and I kind of tinkered with it and my son weighed six pounds five ounces. But when I filled the Teddy bear with six pounds five ounces of split peas, it has an illusion to it. And it felt like it weighed about 13 pounds. And that’s that’s because it’s-

Liz Tinkham (18:56):
Just bulky. Yeah.

Marcella Johnson (18:57):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And it was unsupported weight. So you know how heavy that is when something doesn’t have any give to it. So it just felt really awkward. And then we made one and it was too small. It felt too light. And then we came to a weight that we felt like you were holding about seven or eight pounds, which is the average weight of a baby now. And it just felt really good in our arms and the way it was… that we’ve made it too with stuffing and everything, the bottom was very heavy and it felt… well, just like when you’re holding a baby, you know how their little bottoms kind of rest on your arm?

Liz Tinkham (19:26):
Yeah. Their butts have some weight, right? Right.

Marcella Johnson (19:28):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So it kind of mimic that. So I’m used to make them by hand. And so I made the first prototype. It was kind of a nappy bear. It wasn’t really soft or anything, but it would have that heft. And I put a purple ribbon on it because I thought, “I can’t afford to make bears for girls and bears for boys, one will be pink, one will be blue. So I thought, you know what? If you combine pink, which is red and blue together, you get purple and that’s a gender neutral color. I thought, well so, oh, I made one with a purple bow and then I wrote a letter to the moms that would be receiving this Cub and just letting them know that they’re not alone.
And I called them, I said, “Dear fellow mom.” And I wrote the letter to them to let them know that some people when they lose a child, especially if it’s their first child, they wonder, “Am I a mother or not?” So I wanted to let them know that they are a mother. And then I just said, “I hope it will bring a little bit of comfort to your arms and I know that no gift could be given or nothing can be said or a gift given that could take away the deep pain you might be feeling. But just, here’s just a little something from one mother to the next.”

Liz Tinkham (20:36):
And how many did you make to start?

Marcella Johnson (20:38):
Oh gosh, I started off with just like a half a dozen.

Liz Tinkham (20:41):
Oh, got it. Okay.

Marcella Johnson (20:41):
And then I went to the hospitals and said… where I delivered and I said, I made this, what do you think? And the social worker there said, “Oh my gosh, I think this is great. Can you make six more of them?” And I was like, “Okay.” And then I brought them to hospice and they said the same thing, “Can you make six more or a dozen more?” I can’t remember, but it got so much that I had to enlist my girlfriends. And so we would make assembly lines and we’d fill in with split peas and then we’d stuff them. And then I’d hand write each note and we put the bows on and it just got bigger and bigger as time went on and people really responded to it. But not initially, I was going to tell you.

Liz Tinkham (21:15):
Yeah. And this is not long after George has passed away. Isn’t that true?

Marcella Johnson (21:19):
I came up with the idea a week after his funeral, so shortly after George passed. But it took me a while to kind of figure things out. And I quite frankly picked myself up off the floor. I was in such a devastated state, but I really wanted to do something. And it was the most horrible thing that happened in my life. And I thought, “If I could just make that road and that burden a little lighter for one other person, that would mean so much to me, because I’m just one person.” I was actually met with a lot of resistance at first.

Liz Tinkham (21:53):
Yeah. You said to me that people kind of thought you were a little bit wacky. So talk about that.

Marcella Johnson (21:58):
And I was a little afraid too, because nothing like this existed 23 years ago really, it didn’t.

Liz Tinkham (22:04):
And people didn’t recognize it as a real problem either. Right? Kind of still all in your head. Yeah.

Marcella Johnson (22:09):
Yep. Yep. Yep. And there was also that, especially from more male doctors than female doctors, I don’t know what that’s all about, but I think that there’s something about a woman’s heart after giving birth or a woman’s heart in general, much more compassionate, I think that’s not true of everybody, but that’s a lot of that, but a lot of male doctors was what I got a lot of resistance from was like, “Okay, what? Well, is there any research behind this?” And just like I was saying about that whole thing about-

Liz Tinkham (22:38):
Show me the Lancet study of 1000 patients. Right?

Marcella Johnson (22:42):
Exactly. And it’s like, “No, I don’t have data for you, but I can tell you I’m in support groups and this is happening to so many women and I’m reading about this,” and it’s like, that’s just not good enough. And then the other thing is that there was a fear on my part too, that a woman had just had the most significant loss in her life and you’re trying to give her a teddy bear? Are you trying to replace this baby? What are you doing?

Liz Tinkham (22:42):
Yeah, yeah.

Marcella Johnson (23:08):
And I get that and I would get that response. And I was like, “Well, no.” And all these years later, I have a very different response to that. Well, first of all, when The Comfort Cub came out, it was then copied the world over. And it was… it proved itself, right? Just by the fact that so many women wanted something to hold before they left the hospital. And so it has been now flourished all over the place and any kind of like loss, there’s a lot of different walks to raise money for different infant loss things.
And I just read somewhere that they were saying, “Okay, so we show up for the walks and we all have our bears and we have our pictures.” And I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, they have their bears, that started with George,” even though other people have copied it, it started with George. My point now is that when I speak all these years later, and also what I felt but didn’t have enough confidence to say is, “Listen, I’m a mother who lost a child myself. And of course, I know this is not a replacement for their baby.” And the other thing that I grew confident in is the fact that there is a mutual respect. I don’t care what your background is. I don’t care what your race is. I don’t care what your orientation or anything is. There is a bond between two mothers who have lost a child.

Liz Tinkham (24:31):
I can imagine. Right.

Marcella Johnson (24:33):
And so the fact that this came from a mother who has experienced this, this is not from a company or just somebody who’s trying to sell something, this is from the pain of another mother. And even if they weren’t interested, I think that they would respect that another woman was trying to help another woman. And that’s proven to be the case that it is very well received. And the number one thing that we hear from people, is that it made them know they were not alone. Because when this happens to you, you feel so isolated and it’s so much pain you can’t imagine that anyone would know what that’s like.

Liz Tinkham (25:15):
You and your husband Matt, have funded The Comfort, or at least initially funded Comfort Cub for many years in honor of George. And I love how you guys thought about it. So tell us a little bit about your initial funding approach.

Marcella Johnson (25:26):
Okay, well. So, and I know you’re a mom too, so-

Liz Tinkham (25:30):
I know, I was going to say every parent will relate to this story.

Marcella Johnson (25:34):
Okay. Right. And I think you know about how terrible that ride home was with my husband and I. I just said, “Matt, I don’t want any woman to ever have to leave the hospital empty handed the way we did.” And so I just said, we have three other kids, they are so expensive and as you know, as a parent. And so what if we did a little George fund? What if we put the money that we would put aside for like, diapers and formula and onesies and as they grow, there’s sneakers and toys and bikes and school education. And we use that money to create The Cub and to distribute The Cub. And he, of course, was on board with that. And so that’s what we did. We had a little George fund and that’s the money that we used. And we self-funded the program for 10 years. And when we started, the internet was not a household item for sure. And so we had 1-800 numbers. Remember those 1-800?

Liz Tinkham (26:28):
Mm-hmm. Of course. Yeah.

Marcella Johnson (26:29):
So we had a little hotline that if anyone in the United States, because I got a little bit of press about what I was doing and such, and it did go nationally. So we actually had people from across the United States and Canada reach out to us saying that they had lost a child and could they please get a Cub too? And the answer was, “Yes, of course.” So Matt and I paid for them to be shipped out, billed and sent to these women all across America. But after 10 years of doing this, unfortunately, we had that economic crash in 2008 and that affected our whole nation and it affected us personally too. And we simply didn’t have that extra income to provide this service. And I was brokenhearted and so was my husband.

Liz Tinkham (27:14):
Yeah. And we’ll pivot to what happened there, but I just want to point out, if I have my numbers correctly, that at that 10 year mark, you’d given away 8,000 Comfort Cubs.

Marcella Johnson (27:23):
Yeah. Close, yes.

Liz Tinkham (27:24):
I mean, that’s just incredible.

Marcella Johnson (27:26):
I know.

Liz Tinkham (27:27):
Incredible. And what a tribute to George as well?

Marcella Johnson (27:29):
Oh, thank you so much. That meant so much to me, because like I said to you, I wished I could help one other woman. The fact to know that there has been 8,000 people out there, families that have been affected and I have to tell you that we conservatively estimate that The Cub gets held by at least three people in the family. It’s usually the mom and the partner, the mom and the father, the mom and… and if there’s siblings or cousins and not to forget the grandparents, so it’s closer to five or six really, but we just say, three people will benefit from that. And so, yeah. So that was actually more like 24,000 people gotten some relief. And I’m proud to tell you that today, or I’m happy to tell you today that we’ve given away over 25,000 Cubs. And so we estimate that has helped at least 75,000 people, which is very, very hard to comprehend actually.

Liz Tinkham (28:27):
That’s unbelievable.

Marcella Johnson (28:27):
Isn’t that crazy?

Liz Tinkham (28:29):
And what a Third Act that is. So I’ll speed through this because you said you’re talking about the financial crisis. So the San Diego hospice takes it over for a while and then it lasted for so long, but you eventually got it back and you turned it into a 501c3 so a nonprofit, which you’ve got donors for and you’re back at it and still going. So, but you were telling me too that there’s multiple, people are using The Comfort Cubs for other things, not just for grieving after a child’s loss, what else have they been using them for?

Marcella Johnson (28:59):
Okay. So when we first started, as you know, for parents who lose a child, but one of the first meetings that I ever had in San Diego, I was speaking to all the hospitals, explaining The Comfort Cub and handing them out. And I had a woman in the back raise her hand and she said, “Hi, I have an idea for your Cubs but the baby doesn’t die.” And I thought, “Well gosh, what do you mean?” And she said, “I’m with Catholic charities and we help moms give their babies up for adoption.” I would not have thought of that because I was so focused on this great need with moms. But I was like, “You’re absolutely right.” And just from there, it kind of grew and then NICU nurses said we also have an application where the child’s not going to die, but we found out that it is very trauma filled for a parent whose baby is sick and has to stay in the NICU, 99% of those babies get better and go home. Right? But the fact that those families, those mothers and husbands have to leave the hospital without their child.

Liz Tinkham (30:00):
Yeah. Go home and sleep and go back, it’s… I have friends who have had that happen. It’s really hard.

Marcella Johnson (30:04):
Yeah. Well there’s studies that have just come out that show that you actually can get PTSD from that. So if you could hold The Comfort Cub, while you’re missing your child, while you’re at home in bed at night, it really does make a difference. And then that fills that void. And then you go back and you’re with your baby. But then so, for the loss of miscarriage, sudden infant death, loss of a spouse, loss of a family member, also organ donor families and also lately we’ve been having people who contact us for the loss of a pet. A lot more people, especially young people are holding off on having children and they will get a pet together.
And when that pet dies, it’s a trauma for them, for sure. So then we have three programs. Now we have a Loss Program, we have a Trauma Relief Program and then we have Life Changing Events. So in trauma, that would be like foster children, victims of post traumatic stress, children who have been abused, children who have been neglected ,victims of natural disasters, emergencies, unfortunately mass shootings, we’ve been involved with that. And then life changing events like those that are giving up a child for adoption, children that have special needs, family deployment, patients with dementia, anyone who’s suffering a loss of any kind, we all can relate to loss in one way or another.

Liz Tinkham (31:26):
The weighted comfort of the Cub has that comforting impact on everybody. So you talked about it at the beginning that eventually you find out that what you were experiencing after Georgia’s death has a name for it, the stress-induced cardiomyopathy or Broken Heart Syndrome, how was that discovery made? And did you feel vindicated finally like, “Yes. I’m not crazy.”

Marcella Johnson (31:50):
Absolutely. And you know what, I still give… and I give talks today and you know how we’ve branched out? Well, I talked to a lot of different people and I just was out talking to a group of trauma intervention volunteers. And almost to every time I speak, I have somebody in the audience come up to me afterwards and say, “You know what, when my mom died, I got this really bad pain or when this happened, and I just thought I was going crazy. Thank you for telling me this is a real thing.” So yeah, it’s called Takotsubo Syndrome. It was discovered in Japan in the ’90s. And it was when a group of women, and these were middle aged women, were coming into these Japanese doctors and saying, well, with all the signs of a heart attack, their hearts were in pain, like palpitations, they couldn’t get a full breath and then they’d do an x-ray or whatever, a CT or something and then they’d find out that they couldn’t necessarily find heart disease or anything.
But what they found out with all these women had in common was that they had just all experienced the death of their lifetime mate. These are people that have been married for 45 years, 50 years, 60 years, 75 years. And it’s that acute grief. And so what they saw too on the scan was that the left ventricle, which is the part that’s most in charge of pumping your blood, it enlarges, and this can be dangerous and it enlarges and it causes a stunning of your heart, but because you don’t have heart disease, your heart continues to beat, but that’s why there’s pain that is left because your heart just experienced something physical.

Liz Tinkham (33:33):
You’re heartbroken.

Marcella Johnson (33:34):
You’re heart… Absolutely heartbroken. Yeah. And so anyhow, when they looked at this, the left ventricle and it took on a shape of an object that the Japanese people are very familiar with and you know how they like sushi and eating fish and all that stuff. Well, they love octopus and octopus’s name in Japanese is Tako. Tsubo is bowl or trap. And so when they looked at this, the shape of the heart stretched into something that looked like an octopus trap. So they… And I say this because it would be as though an American doctor was looking at the shape of a heart. And let’s just say, it took on the shape of a guitar. Because that’s a very distinct shape. Well, they looked it and they said, “Oh, that looks like a octopus trap. So we’re going to call it octopus trap syndrome.” Because that what they called, it’s Takotsubo Syndrome.

Liz Tinkham (34:21):
I don’t think I’d know an octopus trap if it bit me on the head. So yeah, exactly. But I hear what you’re saying because it’s in Japan, right?

Marcella Johnson (34:26):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And it’s just the thing is that what it has is it has a very, very small opening and a very large area. So they put a piece of fish in the back of the back of the pot. The octopus goes in head first, eats his little thing and then when he comes out, his tentacles are all over and he can’t get himself. He can’t get himself back out and that’s how he is trapped. Yeah. So I wanted to tell you why and what we didn’t realize 20 years ago. I mean, I just knew that that weight in my arms felt good, but it wasn’t until, oh gosh, probably 15 years ago or so, that we realized that there’s something called Deep Touch Pressure. And it’s when you hold something that’s weighted and you hold it against your chest or your body, there’s all these things now that are used for weighted comfort. Like everybody, most people know about weighted blankets, right?

Liz Tinkham (35:23):
Mm-hmm, yep.

Marcella Johnson (35:24):
And vests for dogs when they get frightened and things like that. It’s Deep Touch Pressure and when you have pressure against your body… and again, it doesn’t have to be soft and furry, it could be cold and hard like that terracotta pot, but it causes your brain to release dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin and these are all your happy hormones. These are the hormones that help you to feel better. And it causes a physiological change in your body. It actually causes your heart rate to slow down, it causes your breathing to slow down and it gives you an overall sense of calm and peace. And so that’s when we recognized that science, that’s when we realized we could go out and use this in different ways, like with the police department and all those other places I was telling you about.

Liz Tinkham (36:07):
That’s great. That’s great. What do you have planned for the future of Comfort Cub?

Marcella Johnson (36:11):
Okay. So one of the things that happened as you know in the last two years, and we hadn’t, nobody expected a pandemic worldwide, COVID-19 craziness. So we actually got a lot of requests for Comfort Cubs during this time and we just pivoted just like everyone else. It was like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t care who’s hurting, our mission is to help to bring healing to any broken heart as a result of a significant loss or trauma. And so we don’t care what it is or what got you there, we just want to help.”
And COVID was huge in the fact that so many people felt isolated and alone. And grandparents that couldn’t hug their grandchildren, they had a Cub to hold instead when they were feeling sad. And then just overall, unfortunately, there’s been so much increase in mental health issues. So when you ask me about the future of The Comfort Cub, we will always help mothers who lose a child. We will always help people who are in pain, but right now, we have recognized that there is a huge need for mental health issues. And particularly, with our children, with younger people, those kids that have not been able to go to school for the last couple years and the rate of depression and anxiety and unfortunately, suicide rate has grown-

Liz Tinkham (37:34):
Way up.

Marcella Johnson (37:35):
… 60%. And to us that’s devastating and terrible. And so now we’ve started to work with the counselors in the San Diego School Systems and at different school systems throughout America to reach those kids. So I’m very proud about that, and I’m very happy that we’re going to continue to do working in the mental health area.

Liz Tinkham (37:55):
That’s fantastic. So I almost titled this podcast, I’m Not Done Yet because I feel like I’m not done yet. So what aren’t you done with yet?

Marcella Johnson (38:02):
Okay. So what I’m not done with yet is I am not done with trying to bring people a little bit of comfort in this hurting world. And I’m not done trying to find more people to help either. So Liz, if you have any new avenues or if any of your listeners out have new avenues where they think The Comfort Cub could help, please contact us because we would love to be able to do that.

Liz Tinkham (38:26):
Marcella, it’s just been so delightful to talk to you and to hear your story of the way you’ve honored your son, George, who would be the 23 this year, with Comfort Cub. We’ve got your LinkedIn. We will put the link to The Comfort Cub, where else could we find you online?

Marcella Johnson (38:41):
You can find us online at www.thecomfortcub, and everyone thinks it’s club, C-L-U-B, but it’s The Comfort Cub, C-U-B like baby bear, and then .org, which indicates that we are a nonprofit.

Liz Tinkham (38:56):
And so we will put that link in there as well as a link to Takotsubo Syndrome.

Marcella Johnson (39:02):
Takotsubo Syndrome. Yeah.

Liz Tinkham (39:04):
Takotsubo Syndrome and to Empty Arm Syndrome. And for people who are listening, you take donations as well. Right?

Marcella Johnson (39:10):
So, The Comfort Cub is always, always available for free to someone who has experienced a trauma themselves. And they just have to go to our website. And at the very top of the website, it says, “Apply for a Comfort Cub.” I just wanted people to be aware though, that if you know someone who’s hurting, we do sell the Cubs also. Basically for our cost to everyone into hospitals. And with just that little tiny bit of profit that we make, we just turn it right back into getting comfort cubs out for free to people.

Liz Tinkham (39:39):
25,000 bears given away for free. Right?

Marcella Johnson (39:41):

Liz Tinkham (39:42):
And without a charge and more to come. And as you mentioned, mental health with kids right now is such a huge thing. So thank you so much for being on the show and for all the great work you’re doing.

Marcella Johnson (39:52):
Oh, Liz, thank you. I enjoyed this very much. Thank you.

Liz Tinkham (39:58):
Thanks for joining me today to listen to the Third Act Podcast. You can find show notes, guest bios and more at If you enjoyed our show today, please subscribe and write a review on your favorite podcast platform. I’m your host, Liz Tinkham. I’ll be back next week with another guest who’s found new meaning and fulfillment in the third act of their life.


Get featured on Third Act

Want to share the story of your own Third Act on our podcast? We welcome stories from executives who pivoted their careers to find their passion and purpose later in their lives. Tell us more about yourself to be considered as a guest.