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Grief gives life to gift business

Chicago Tribune, September 12, 2004

As a social worker in a neonatal intensive care unit, Renee Wood became adept at comforting people in the throes of grief. She often would sit with families while their babies were being taken off life support.

But when her sister-in-law's father died unexpectedly, Wood was at a loss. She wanted to send something more than flowers, but she couldn't find a gift that seemed appropriate and lasting.

That started her thinking. If she was struggling to find a meaningful sympathy gift, others must be having the same problem.

''I was literally awake for four straight days when I started thinking about the possibilities. I couldn't sleep. I was pumped with adrenaline,'' Wood said.

From the basement of her suburban home near Chicago, Wood launched The Comfort Co., an Internet retailer that sells everything from garden stepping stones to holiday remembrance ornaments.

She has been in business four years, and Comfort Co. is still a one-woman show. By the standards of big retailers, her sales are tiny, on target to exceed $100,000 this year.

Yet the heartfelt response Wood has received from customers has convinced her that she's on the right track. And the trend lines are promising. In August 2003 she received 64 orders; this August she got more than 250 — all with no advertising.

''I get up every morning and can't wait to get started,'' said the 39-year-old mother of four daughters.

Americans often have been criticized for their impatience with grief.

Many people get only a handful of paid days off to deal with the death of a spouse, child or parent and are expected to be back in top form after that.

But it takes much longer than a week to get over a serious loss, grief experts say.

''We, as a society, want to solve problems. Grief can't be fixed. It is a process that a person needs to go through,'' explained Pat Loder, executive director of Compassionate Friends, an Oak Brook nonprofit that helps families who have lost children.

''People are really very uncomfortable talking about grief.''

There certainly is no sign of a wholesale change in attitude about death and dying. But Wood and others believe many people are becoming more interested in expressing sympathy and remembering those who have died, a trend accelerated by the aging of the baby boom generation and, perhaps, U.S. casualties in Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks.

In Hinsdale, Ill., artist Phyllis Janik makes and markets hand-blown glass sculptures that can be used to store cremation ashes. The ashes can even be embedded in the molten glass.

LifeGem, a company in Elk Grove Village, Ill., will make a diamond out of cremation ashes for prices starting around $2,500. And other companies are marketing urns shaped like pool tables or golf bags.

But the more traditional way of acknowledging someone's death continues to be sending a card and flowers.

Americans send about 122 million sympathy cards annually, which represents about 6 percent of cards sent for non-holiday-related reasons, according to the Greeting Card Association.

Similarly, about 5 percent of flowers purchased outside the holidays are for funerals or memorials.

Hallmark, the largest greeting card company in America, also believes the sympathy industry is gaining ground.

Sales of its sympathy cards rose 3 percent from 2002 to 2003, a trend the company expects to continue, said Jennifer McKenzie, a Hallmark product manager.

That would seem to augur well for Comfort Co., which is focused on a relatively new market: gifts that others can buy and send to show support for a grieving friend or relative.

''She is creating a market and, I would say, meeting what most people consider an unmet need,'' says Neil Stern, a retail consultant with Chicago's McMillan/Doolittle.

''But like all good marketing, there are things we didn't think of as important that become important when someone shows you the opportunity.

''Fifty years ago, we didn't think we needed to wear deodorant,'' Stern said.

The Comfort Co.'s Web site (www.thecomfortcompany.net) is divided into a variety of categories including ''miscarriage and infant loss,'' ''pet loss'' and ''sympathy gifts for kids.''

For those who have lost an unborn child or infant, there is an assortment of 16 items, including a $37 hand-embroidered pillow with the phrase ''Planted on earth to bloom in heaven'' and memorial garden stones ranging in price from $35 to $85. The $85 stone includes a metal plaque to be engraved with a name and dates.

Memorial stones and markers make up the gift assortment for grieving pet owners.

For children who have lost a family member, Comfort Co. offers a $25 kit to make their own memorial stone, a $40 chamois Teddy bear or a $16 ''Angel Catcher'' journal that encourages them to record their memories of the person who died.

There are plenty of general gifts as well, including $23 windsocks with pockets for photos and the silver forget-me-not pendant in the shape of a tear that she ended up creating for her sister-in-law. It retails for $49 and comes with a verse Wood wrote about treasuring ''the tears of remembrance.''

The most popular item on the site is a silver bracelet that says ''Always in my mind; forever in my heart.''

The Comfort Co. filled a void for Sandy Rumpler, who was looking for some kind of gift to send a niece whose baby girl died a day before the due date.

''It was such a tragic circumstance. We just didn't know what to do,'' said Rumpler, who lives in Fairfield, Ohio.

She heard her niece was planning a memorial garden, so she thought about a memorial stone she had seen inside a funeral home's florist shop. She typed ''sympathy gift'' into Google's search engine and soon was browsing Comfort Co.'s site. When she came across a stone-cast concrete bench on the site, she knew she had found a fitting tribute.

Rumpler and her three sisters went in together on the $130 bench.

''I was very lucky I found this,'' said Rumpler, who wrote a note to Wood thanking her for creating Comfort Co.

Although sources for memorial statues have always existed, Wood has had to work hard to expand her offerings.

As she did at the beginning, she is coming up with some of them herself and commissioning others from craftspeople.

A stay-at-home mom in Utah hand-stitches pillows for her. A woman artist in Washington state makes two candles with comforting

messages exclusively for Wood.

Wood is creating a line of five holiday remembrance ornaments because she has found the holidays are a particularly tough period for those who are grieving. One of the ornaments will be a limited edition of 500 carrying this year's date. She has a waiting list of more than 500 names.

Wood is a little concerned about what customers might think about Comfort Co. earning a profit. So far, that hasn't been an issue because Wood hasn't taken a salary, choosing to plow excess revenue into buying equipment and creating products. The cost of producing the holiday ornaments, for example, has hit $18,000.

''There goes the profit right there,'' she said with a laugh.

But eventually, she knows the business will have to become profitable if it is to continue, something she very much wants so her daughters will have the option of taking it over someday.

The pressure to make money has become more intense in recent years as her husband's job prospects as a pilot for United Airlines have become more rocky.

Sometimes her husband teases Wood that she is making ''5 cents an hour,'' given all the time she puts in. But when there is another setback for United, it's a different story.

''He'll say, 'Are you hiring yet?'''

Susan Chandler is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Copyright © 2004

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