Renee Wood of Geneva doesn’t consider herself artistic.
And she didn’t start out to launch a successful business.
But when a young, stay-at-home mom’s frustration after an unsuccessful Internet shopping session was mixed with a can of Play-Doh, a successful — and artistic — business was born.
“My sister-in-law’s dad [had just] died,” Wood recalls. “I had a baby at home and couldn’t go out to find a [meaningful] gift. I looked online, but came up empty-handed. There was nothing that addressed the direct loss.”
So, Wood used what was handy — a blob of Play-Doh — to create a teardrop shape. She took the teardrop to a local jeweler who fashioned it into a silver pendant, which she then presented to her sister-in-law.
“I wanted to tell her that it was okay to cry and to be proud of her tears,” Wood says.
Not long after, people started asking Wood if she had more teardrops to sell.
“I found a manufacturer to do 150 pendants, put up a free website and decided to see what happened,” she says.
Twelve years later, those 150 pendants posted on a free website have blossomed into a thriving business that has helped thousands of customers nationwide express the most challenging emotions — sympathy and grief.
Available online and at a downtown Geneva retail space in The Shoppes at 127, The Comfort Company sells figurines, wall plaques, picture frames, cards, flag cases, urns and jewelry — including Wood’s original teardrop pendant.
Also available are garden decorations including stones, benches and wind chimes, live trees and commemorative Christmas ornaments.
“People love the garden benches and some of our granite pieces,” Wood says. “Wind chimes are also really popular.”
Her pewter memorial ornaments, meanwhile — launched in 2004 — have become collectibles.
“People come back each year to get the new one,” Wood says. “Hospices, March of Dimes and funeral homes give them to their customers.”
When Geneva resident Colleen Loberg needs a gift for a coworker or friend who has lost a loved one, she turns to The Comfort Company.
“[A gift from The Comfort Company is] something special that they can have for a long time,” Loberg says. “Flowers die, but an ornament is something they can hang and look at. [Renee] has so many different things, I can always find something that’s perfect for the person I’m shopping for.”
Wood says what sets her products apart is that they directly address the loss.
“I didn’t want any vague remembrances, because it’s important to acknowledge the person has had a loss,” she says.
Following a dream
A Florida native, Wood earned a master’s degree in social work from Florida State University and worked in a hospital neo-natal intensive care unit helping families of gravely ill children.
It was heart-wrenching work, yet Wood says she felt blessed to be part of it.
“When a child died, it was difficult, but the joy of having known the child and being able to support the family made it beautiful in a way,” she says.
In 1998, Wood and her husband relocated to Illinois and by 2000, she was a stay-at-home mom with three young children. Her business idea, partially inspired by an article she read in O, The Oprah Magazine, was initially something she thought about to keep her mind engaged.
“The article was about women who’d followed their dreams,” Wood says. “After I read it, I thought, ‘I could do that too.’”
Her first few months in business were uneventful.
“I got a few orders from people I knew, but not much else,” she says. “Then one day, I got an order from someone in Texas. I said to my husband, ‘We don’t know anyone in Texas, do we?’”
To her surprise, she’d been discovered by Internet search engines.
“When someone typed in ‘sympathy gifts,’ my site came up first,” she says.
Since her website had the capacity for 25 items, Wood hit the trade shows “to fill in the parking spaces” and The Comfort Company was off and running.
In the midst of it all, she found a moment to dash off a thank you note to O for the article that inspired her. The note led to a 2005 appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. While the show didn’t provide an immediate bounce in business, Wood says people still find The Comfort Company by searching “Oprah” and “sympathy gifts.”
“The lifetime value is pretty remarkable,” she says.
In 2005, Wood — by now a mother of four — hired Amy Palmer of Geneva, a neighbor and friend with a strong customer service background.
“I have tremendous respect for her as a boss and a friend,” Palmer says of Wood. “We support each other, and if one of us wants to be a room-mom, or has a sick child, the flexibility is great.”
They also help one another through the emotional moments that are inevitable in their business.
“It’s heavy, emotional work,” Wood says. “We hear the stories, and sometimes we cry. You don’t get numb ever.”
But even the toughest days don’t shake her belief that acknowledging loss is essential.
“It’s our experience that people do want the remembrance,” Wood says. “The silence is more painful.”
She adds that the added pressure to express sympathy well can make people afraid to express it at all.
“We feel pressure to take the person’s grief away, and when we can’t, we avoid it,” she says. “Just say something simple. People are afraid to open the wound, but it’s more painful not to. It’s the elephant in the room.”
The Comfort Company’s website also includes articles and verses to help those struggling to say the right thing.
“Even when I send the gifts, I sometimes have trouble saying the words, but I can call and say, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking,’ [and] they’ll help me find a way to say it,” Loberg says. “I get the nicest thank you notes back.”
Sympathy also doesn’t carry an expiration date, Wood says.
“Often immediately afterward, there’s a crowd of people around. But when the funeral is over, and everyone goes home, the gifts and cards that arrive later are often the most comforting,” she says. “We get calls from people who say, ‘It arrived at the perfect time. I was having a really bad day, but it showed up and made me feel better.’” kc