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Jen Marr: One Marathon Away from Teaching Comfort As a Skill

Jen Marr spent 5 years in crisis response, working with communities and individuals that experienced great tragedies. During this time, a realization dawned on her: very few people are skilled in comforting others. She founded Inspiring Comfort, an organization dedicated to cultivating human care and connection by establishing comfort as a teachable skill. Founded on the belief that today’s isolated, socially disconnected, and a hurting world causes more harm than good, Inspiring Comfort encourages us to do a better job of caring for one another.  

Jen and Inspiring Comfort have helped thousands build a caring and connective world. She’s the author of Kickstarter’s #2 book Paws to Comfort, and she’s worked in mental health organizations that advocate Comfort Skill Programming such as the National Suicide Lifeline, Georgetown University, Northeastern University, The New York Office of Mental Health, and the American Association of Suicidology.

Takeaways

  1. Comfort is not a cozy, pain-free word.
  2. 75% of people can recognize someone who is struggling, but only 15% of people feel equipped to know what to say and do.
  3. There are 4 steps to creating a culture of comfort: assess, inform, equip, cultivate.

Transcript

BRYAN WISH: You have a fascinating story, a great career, and have done many things. What would you say is your One Away moment?

JEN MARR: Thank you for your platform and what you’re doing to elevate great ideas and conversations out there. I’d say my One Away moment was a real pivotal moment in my life when I was running the Boston Marathon in April 2013. I was half a mile away from the finish line when the bombs went off. This was a pivotal moment for me because I was running the race as kind of a way to heal.

In December 2012, it was the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. I was helping in that school each week, bringing comfort dogs in and bringing comfort to the staff and students. That was  quite a tough place to be. Running this race was a way to heal from that and process my thoughts as I was running. I dedicated mile 26 to all of my new friends there, the staff and students. I didn’t even get to mile 26. I got to mile 25.8, and it was the cruelest .2 miles that I didn’t even get to mile 26. 

After that, I  believe I suffered from a little bit of PTSD, having dealt with so much trauma in such a short amount of time. Everything was a bit foggy to me. I had a tough time understanding how there could be so much evil in the world to be so involved in two mass terror issues within four months of each other. When the dust settled, I was left with this feeling that there’s so much more to be done to help this world. After that experience at Boston, I looked at every new crisis response that I would deploy to.

I was working with the Lutheran Church Charities Canine Dogs that were deployed to tragedies all over the country. I was dealing with them in the Connecticut and New York region. It wasn’t only Sandy Hook. I was going to crisis responses every month, sometimes weekly. I was deploying to suicides and car accidents. I had this deep dive into human suffering. Being on the ground with people going through unimaginable tragedy. I had this opportunity to observe how dogs were taking the role of caring for people.

There was nothing wrong with that. It was beautiful. People respond so beautifully to the love of their pets and dogs. What I also noticed was humans were losing their way. We were becoming more awkward; we didn’t know what to say. I observed time and time again of people not knowing how to support the ones going through the toughest time. Usually, they did nothing. This ultimately led me to found the company Inspiring Comfort. Understanding that we all have to know how to care for each other.

I got to the point where I loved being there with these beautiful golden retrievers but the saying that kept going through my mind at the time was, “If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day.” It got to the point where I kind of just felt I was bringing comfort, and that was beautiful, but I didn’t feel it was resiliency. I felt if people could care for each other, that’s resilience.

Step one is to offer comfort, for sure. Step two has to be to help people know how to connect and care for each other. That’s what led me. I’d say that .2 missed miles in the Boston Marathon are what really opened my heart to that. 

BRYAN WISH: You were a part of two back-to-back traumatic events. Let’s go back to Sandy Hook. It’s one thing to bring the dogs and help people through their experience, but it sounds like you learned a lot about yourself and maybe showing up for people and learning how to comfort people. What did you notice about yourself that allowed you to be able to comfort people in those times?

JEN MARR: I think we’re all wired a little differently. I felt very privileged that I had the opportunity to help a community recover. I think it also helped me that I went in holding the leash of a beautiful golden retriever, and I was not a trained counselor. I really was not there to talk. I was there just to be and to help. Through that process, I learned that it is not about the conversations.

It’s not about always having the perfect thing to say. It’s not about doing something perfectly and on a large scale. It’s the art of being present. It’s the art of being there over and over and over again. It’s the recognition that when someone is hurting, they just want to be seen. They don’t want to be told what to do. They don’t want to be offered solutions. Sometimes they just need a hug. It’s the understanding that someone going through an incredibly difficult time on one day might be smiling and very happy, and the next day will be incredibly sad.

Four years later, they could have a day where they’re as sad as they were a week after the tragedy. Traumatic situations, crisis trauma, loss, stress, burnout, they’re all this massive dump of cortisol into our system. It’s not any kind of linear process. It is a messy process that people need others to walk with them through every day. 

BRYAN WISH: What did that look like in action when you were there to comfort? 

JEN MARR: It was a process. I first showed up with the dog, and I didn’t know these people. If I were to boil it down to three things: I smiled big. I listened hard and hugged tight. There weren’t a lot of words. At first, it was maybe the dog that they were drawn to. The great opportunity I had in those years was the fact that it did go on for five years. For five years, I was in that school every week. It shifted from them petting the dog to asking a question about me. My simple way to show up was to smile, listen, give a hug. Most people love hugs. There were a few that didn’t, and then you don’t give them a hug. Then just ask the simple question, “How’s today?” That’s it. Sometimes they didn’t have time to talk. Sometimes they did. Sometimes we’d sit and chat, and it was the accumulation of those. 

You’ve seen my book. I just had the amazing opportunity to collaborate with Skye Quinn from Time Magazine. Skye said, “Jen, when you do the book, make sure you have a great picture or something on the last page of the book. Not the back cover but the last inside page because sometimes people open it from the back.” What I decided to put on that critical page was a marble jar. I like to equate, when you care for someone, it’s like looking at a person that needs a jar filled with marbles. Every time you do an act of care – it doesn’t matter if it’s a text or a phone call or a hug, you’re putting a marble in their jar.

What I learned from that is it’s so many little things. It’s so many check-ins. It’s the building of that trust. It’s the building of the, “I’m here for you. I’m not going to leave. I’ll be here for you every day. If you ever need anything, let me know.” Then doing that and being there. As I was there every week for five years, it was an incredibly stark contrast to 99% of the other crisis responses that I went to, which were, for the most 72 hours. Usually, it was 24-36 hours. You’d go in, and then you’d leave these shattered students that had to go back to class with an empty chair in the classroom. It was the combination of living one out and then thinking what was going on in all those other ones that I wasn’t at each week after. 

BRYAN WISH: What really stands out is this wasn’t a, “Let me just come in for 72 hours, clean some things up, do the best I can, and then move out.” It was a very long-term process. It’s the marble analogy of, “Let’s build trust over time.” 

JEN MARR: Not only that, but to see what was not working out there. As an example, in all these communities, I’d see programs that would come in to try to help rebuild a community. A lot of times, their intentions were amazing, and the programs are good, but they didn’t result in a connection. So many schools I went to would be doing kindness programs. I don’t mean to bash kindness programs. They’re so critical and good, but almost always, they were random acts of kindness which is, by definition, random and not a connection. Or the other programs were very theory-based, focused on emotions and focused on empathy or compassion. Those are great. Everyone needs to have empathy. I just started to see that tangible skills of knowing how to care for each other are not happening out in our world today. 

My background is in international business development. My business development brain was taking over as I was watching this play out. I knew there had to be another way. That’s when we started testing programs in these trauma-based schools to bring the kids back together in these shorter-term deployments and help them care for others learning this resilience skill of caring and comfort and really starting to research it, build it out, and eventually founded this company. 

BRYAN WISH: Some of the things I’ve come to respect about you are how you’re focused on making comfort something tangible instead of empathy or compassion. You were on the finishing edge of something really remarkable at the Boston Marathon. Take us to that moment. What was going through your mind?

JEN MARR: It’s really quite crazy. At 25.8 miles, all you’re doing is getting to the finish line. Your body is tired. I’m not a professional runner. I was running this for charity. Literally, at 25.8, I was counting my steps. I knew I had to get up this street, make a right turn, make another left turn, and the finish line would be up there. I was literally counting my steps. All of a sudden, there was somebody standing in front of me with his arms up, and he said, “The race is over.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “There’s bombs at the finish line.” I had headphones in. I’m like, “What?” People were screaming. I was running with my friend, Amy, who wanted to keep going. She’s like, “Come on, Jen, we can finish this.”

Weird background – I’d been involved in some other terrorist activities when I lived in Europe. I knew that you did not walk towards it. It walked away from it. I knew I needed to meet with my family. My family was there. They had been at Heartbreak Hill. I knew I needed to find our way back to the hotel. After running 25.8 miles, your body is tired. It was chilly. As you stop running, you get chilled. Normally at the finish line, you get a blanket and you get food. Our adrenaline is going even harder. My phone is blowing up with texts. My hands are shaking so hard that I can’t even answer them. My only thought was I need to get back to my family. 

At the end of the day, I didn’t turn my watch off which was keeping track of my miles. By the time I got back to the hotel, I think it was at 29.2 miles. That’s how much we had to wander around the town getting yelled at by policemen, “Get out of here. Get out of here. Don’t go here. Don’t go there.” A very nice man gave me his coat. Rich Stamps from Oregon who I saw the next year when we were invited back to actually run and finish the race. It was pretty remarkable. It was pretty intense. 

BRYAN WISH: When you met up with your family, were you doing the comforting, or were they able to show up for you?

JEN MARR: It’s really funny because when you’re in this moment and this happens, when people are involved in traumatic events, they don’t recognize themselves to be going through it. As far as I was concerned, I survived. I wasn’t hurt. I met up with my family, and I was okay. Here’s an example of what worked. My friend, Dot, when I finally got back and was looking at all my texts, she said, “I’m going to meet you at your house tomorrow.” I said, “Dot, that’s silly. You don’t need to take off work.” She said, “Jen, I’m going to meet you at your house tomorrow. I’m not taking no for an answer.”

I drove back to Connecticut from Boston. She was living in New York and met me at my house. At that point, I had no idea why she was coming. I’m like, “I’m fine.” Over the course of the next couple of days, she’d be like, “Jen, I’m going to go to the grocery store and get some groceries for you.” I’d be like, “Oh yeah, thanks.” She’s like, “Jen, I’m going to drive Erica to gymnastics.” “Oh, yeah.” Like your mind doesn’t work. There was someone who recognized that I was going to be going through a traumatic time. She’s a nurse practitioner. She’s amazing. She knew what to do.

She wouldn’t take no for an answer. She showed up. It took me a while to decompress from what happened before I was really upset about it because it’s still adrenaline and shock immediately after. I’d tell everyone I was fine. It was probably in the weeks after that all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh my gosh.” This is that One Away moment where it just kind of unfolded. 

BRYAN WISH: I can see why that was such a significant moment. What happened next?

JEN MARR: It’s everything I learned during these years. It was five solid years. Boston happened in the first four months of these five solid years. But really studying human care behaviors and being on the ground floor of observing them. Recognizing that our best, most significant relationships are usually formed through tough times. Always.

I’d watch time and time again as the only time I’ve seen groups of kids not be on their phone was when they were dealing with a crisis response; when they needed each other; when they just wanted to be with each other; when they were trying to make sense of what happened. I recognized how people’s hearts are open when they’re struggling in a way they will never be open when life is happy. I started to study this and figure out there has got to be a better way to teach tools and strategies to help people understand how to get to this point if this is where we’re forming our best relationships.

At the end of the day, comfort is not a cozy, pain-free word. In the noun form, it is. In the noun form, it’s very cozy and a hot cocoa. In the verb form, it’s to bring strength and hope. It’s one of the most powerful, resilient verbs out there but yet, it’s overshadowed by this fuzzy word that we’re all supposed to have comfortable airline seats and cozy chairs. Really starting to look at comfort as a teachable skill. Starting these after school programs, figuring out a process.

At the end of the day, I recognize that when you comfort someone, you have an automatic connection. Not just a nice connection. Not a nice, professional, “Hi, how are you?” but, “I see you. I understand you’re going through pain. I’m here for you.” When you can teach someone how to do that, it will cut through every single kind of barrier that’s out there. I recognize here we were in the middle of any situation. Any situation you put yourself in – I don’t care if it’s political, racial, social, religious, everybody can disagree on all those things, and they can cause division.

When you care for someone, when it cuts through to you just wanting to comfort someone, nothing else matters. It’s the number one best uniting mechanism out there. When you really seek just to care for someone and listen to them, it’s where the best of life is found. 

BRYAN WISH: Was there ever a point of time in your life where you struggled to show up and give comfort to the closest people around you? How did that impact your closest relationships if that experience speaks to you?

JEN MARR: I think it was right after. It would have been in 2013, after that double trauma. It was a lot. It was showing up but yet still processing what I was feeling myself. It was probably one of the ways I learned the power of what I was doing because I found that the way I got through it was the relationships of the people that I was actually helping. What happened was the people I was helping at Sandy Hook all of a sudden flipped it for me.

Now all of a sudden, it wasn’t only me asking them, “How is today?” It’s them now asking me back, “How is today?” I learned that true resilience and fighting your way back has everything to do with the relationships that you have and how when you care for others, they’re going to be there to care for you back. It was this organic process I went through that I found that I needed those relationships to get through. There’s nothing I could have done on my own. Granted, I definitely went through some therapy as well, but a therapist is there as a short-term relationship to give you some strategies. You need your tribe underneath you to get you through. Therapy is never going to, in itself, give you true resilience. You need to get through every day with a group of people around you who love, care, and support you. 

BRYAN WISH: This is why what you’re teaching is so important. It’s not taught in school or in families. It might be learned if a parent shows you that. I can see why what you’re doing needs to be out there. I’d love to talk about Inspiring Comfort and how these experiences blossomed into the impetus for creating what you have, the book that you wrote. Take us there.

JEN MARR: The impetus was we had to move to Washington D.C. for my husband’s job. I had to decide whether we were going to make a company out of this or if it was just still going to be something I just did to love people. Even though we had gone through a research study already back in 2017, I teamed up with two colleagues and we decided to make a go with the company and put into place, the programming that we had. We had a study done at Western Connecticut University and really built out this process of comfort and how you can teach others to care for people.

At the time, it was mostly a youth program. We found that people wanted adult programming expanded and also a book. That was when I got here in 2017. Started a book. Teamed up with Skye Quinn from Time Magazine on that. She did such a brilliant job designing it. It really laid the groundwork for a much broader program platform of how to teach the skill. Started working really closely with Dr. David DeSteno out of Northeastern University. Other mental health organizations got very involved in different suicide prevention, education, and work, and really started moving out to figure out how to tackle this problem of caring for those that are struggling the most.

I learned very early on that we all have a part to play in this mental health epidemic. I knew that what we had started building out was something everybody needs. That’s how it went. It went: start the company. Had some do-it-yourself programs. Write a book. Expand the programming. Now we have assessments. Now we have a whole training platform to train the trainer in all sorts of different settings with the goal of giving people the tools and equipping them based on their own behaviors.

We’re all so different. Based on your own behaviors, take this assessment. Figure out your key strength behaviors and your barrier behaviors. Walk you through tools and strategies so that you never fall into the trap of not knowing what to say or do. 

Through all our programming, we found that 75% of people will say they can recognize someone who is struggling but only 15% of people feel equipped to know what to say and do. 85% of people don’t feel they have the tool to know what to say and do when someone’s struggling. There’s zero reason for that because it’s a behavior that can be changed. It’s a strategy that can be taught.

That’s why I’m so passionate about this. Every time we go through a training, people’s eyes are opened, and they walk out with the tools and strategies that, “Oh, my goodness. I noticed on the phone call with this person that they’re going through this. So, I asked a couple extra questions. Now that relationship is a little better. Now I’m going to continue to follow-up with that person.” 

BRYAN WISH: Tell us a little bit more. You’ve decided a product line within Inspiring Comfort that is really interesting. An organization, different individuals can come and learn how to equip themselves. 

JEN MARR: We built out a process that is what we call our four steps to create a culture of comfort. You could say culture care. The first step is assessing. We have the ability to go in and do pre-surveys for a company really trying to dive into “How cared for do your employees feel?” When this data comes back, it’s pretty eye-opening when you compare how cared for your employees feel at work compared to at home. If you don’t have a cared for workforce, you’re not going to have a productive workforce. You’re going to have a lot more conflict.

Diving into, “How cared for does my workforce?” is key. What are they dealing with? Then what we do is give the employees their individual assessments. What happens from an organizational perspective is we give you this data back aggregated. The employees themselves will get their individual reports that show their own behavior strengths and weaknesses. It’s their personal profile. It comes with an action plan. But you as an organization will be like, “Here are our key barriers. This is what we need to focus on.” Assessing is the first step. 

The second step is informing. It’s really kind of, “Why do we need to know this skill? What’s happened in our world that only 15% of people know what to say and do when someone is struggling? Why is this and why are we investing the time in teaching you this skill?” That’s really critical.

The third is equipping. We have a workshop series. We have book studies. We have a great youth program called Project Comfort. Whichever way you choose to actually walk people through, how they’re going to gain the skills, the tools, the strategies, we have the different ways that you can do that. The workshops are most popular. 

The last step is cultivating. You need to maintain that culture. We have a whole training lane where we’d train an organizational trainer to be on staff that’s able to train those workshops, do those assessments, and be there to do a care response after any type of crisis event which happens all the time. As we know, crisis events are very black and white, check the box, legalistic but the care response goes on for years.

You need someone to understand, “How am I going to care for this workforce after the death of an employee or after the death of a family member of an employee or any other traumatic response?” Organizational trainers. Peer leader trainers is a big one for colleges, especially in high schools. Then facilitator training for our youth program. Or just a regular, standard Inspiring Comfort certified trainer that you can actually go out and train your own programs and collect your own billing and train it in your community. 

BRYAN WISH: I love how you’ve created these individualized products. Your mission, your vision, your experience all backs up. Your book so craftily detail oriented. I think it’s a really special kind of combination of tools that people need to learn. I’ll be vulnerable. It’s something I’m working hard on and really value. I appreciate what you stand for, who you are, and the vulnerability today that you brought to this show. 

JEN MARR: Thank you, Bryan. Post-Covid world, we are all dealing with this. There’s not one person that is listening to this that is not dealing with something. The mental health epidemic is upon us. It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity that we know how to care for each other now. I feel very passionate about helping to reduce suicide and so many people struggling with anxiety and depression. 

BRYAN WISH: Where can people find you?

JEN MARR: inspiringcomfort.com is our website. There’s a product page there where you can find our products and books. You can email me at jen@inspiringcomfort.com or find us on LinkedIn and Facebook. 

One Away Podcast
Bryan Wish

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