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Sowing comfort, she reaps it, too

Renee Wood does more than sell her products to people grieving loved ones. She connects.

By JOHN BARRY, Deputy Floridian Editor, St. Pete Times

Published May 4, 2006


About two months ago, a grieving mother in Australia sent an e-mail to the Comfort Company. She wanted to order keepsake picture frames. She knew the Comfort Company doesn't ship overseas, but she had to ask.

Here was another connection. Another person reaching out, sharing a story of loss. Renee Wood, 41, has sold 25,000 “sympathy gifts” since starting her online Comfort Company four years ago. With each order has come a story like the one above.

“I just can't say no to you,” Wood e-mailed back.

You may remember Renee Wood's Oprah moment. She appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show last year after starting her business based on advice she got from an article in Oprah's O magazine.

Wood had grown up in Clearwater, got a master's in social work from Florida State University. She had worked in a neonatal unit in Little Rock, Ark., on a team that counseled families of dying children being removed from life support.

Eventually, she and her husband moved to Geneva, Ill., where Wood set aside social work to raise their four daughters. She began looking for ways to make money at home. The O magazine article, “How to Make Your Dreams Come True,” inspired her to start the Comfort Company.

She caters to those who have suffered loss, calling on her social work experience. Her online catalog includes items like a Bereavement Angel Figurine, a Victorian Tear Bottle, a Memorial Garden Stone, an Angel Catcher, a First Year of Grieving Care Package, a Memorial Gift Tree, more than 260 items.

Some items take off by surprise. Go figure why Victorian Tear Bottles are popular among widows of soldiers killed in Iraq. They hold tears shed in mourning. They were last popular in the 19th century. “It could be a woman thing,” Wood guesses.

Maybe it's because of shows like Oprah or chat rooms on the Internet, but the boundaries of grief are expanding. Sorrow is less private. It's less hidden. New ways of sharing loss are being sought.

A child dies, Wood gets an e-mail. What is an appropriate sympathy gift for grieving grandparents? What about for the mother of a child lost to miscarriage? In the past two years, Wood has noticed a strong new demand for Mother's Day sympathy gifts for women who have had miscarriages.

Some of the e-mail inquiries are even more basic. People don't know how to say “I’m sorry.” They dread the ordeal of a funeral service. They dread even making a phone call. Would a gift ordered from an online company cover it?

The social worker in Wood comes out. No, a gift won't cover it. Go to the service. Make the phone call. Let them hear your voice. If you can't work up that much courage, leave a message on their voice mail when they're at work.
“Just say, 'I just want you to know I'm thinking of you.’ Boom. It's done. You've opened a door. They can come in if they want to.”

Wood recently put a survey question on her Web site directed at mothers who have lost a child. What would comfort them most?

 “The No. 1 answer was: 'Acknowledge my loss,’ ” Wood said.

People ask her to help choose the words for sympathy cards. “One wrote a card that said the pain would never go away,” she said. “I asked, 'Are you sure that's the message you want to send?’ ”

Others want to sign sympathy cards “from the Gang.” Too impersonal, she advises. Then they tell Wood, “Thank you, I'll think of you next time.” Wood writes back, “I hope there is no next time.”

More e-mails come. Hers is the kind of job “where you wake up every day with a true understanding of how short life is.”

Wood's understanding deepened last month. She had taken her 7-year-old daughter, Olivia, to the pediatrician. As they waited for the doctor, Olivia turned to her. Something was terribly wrong. “She looked at me and said, 'Mama,’ and fell over.”

Olivia was stricken by a severe asthma attack. She went into respiratory arrest. The pediatrician pounded on her back and urged her to breathe. She lost consciousness. She was raced to the hospital. Her life hung in the balance in intensive care.

Wood was unable to work during Olivia's slow recovery. Still waiting was the order from the grieving mother in Australia.

Wood wrote her. “I don't know when I'll get your order out.”

The woman e-mailed back. Don't worry about the order. Don't even think about it. All that matters is Olivia. “Renee, you are in our thoughts and prayers. Take care of your daughter.”

Of all the words of sympathy Wood had heard during Olivia's struggle to get well, the e-mail from Australia affected her most deeply. This woman had just lost her son and was trying to comfort her.

“I'm so sorry,” Wood wrote back. “I don't understand why things happen. I don't understand why my daughter was spared and your son was not.”

The two have never met. Probably never will.

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