“Inspiring Comfort” at Holy Cross: What We Can Learn from Dogs

Hui Li ’21

Co-Chief Photographer

On Monday, March 9, Jen Marr, founder and CEO of Inspiring Comfort, LLC., brought some paws-itivity to campus for the second half of the semester. In November 2019, she published “Paws to Comfort: An Everyday Guide to Learning How You Can Help Mend Our Disconnected World,” a book about how we can look to dogs to learn how to comfort others. She is a frequent speaker on comfort and crisis response.

Jen Marr of Inspiring Comfort, LLC. delivered a presentation about what we can learn from dogs to be better at comforting each other.

Matthew Gasparrini ’20 introduced the special guest to the attendees at the beginning of the event. He worked closely with Dr. Neal Lipsitz, Associate Dean of Student Development, and Darlene Menz, a nurse practitioner from Health Services, to bring Marr to College of the Holy Cross. 

The event was sponsored by several bodies on campus: MPE (Multicultural Peer Educators), SRC (Students for Responsible Choices), COPE (Counseling Outreach Peer Educators), RPE (Relationship Peer Educators), SHAPE (Student Health Awareness Peer Educators), the DREAM (Disability Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentoring) peer educators, SGA (Student Government Association), and Student Development Services

Marr, who had previously worked in international business, started her career in comfort in January 2013, one month after the Sandy Hook Shooting. She brought a team of comfort dogs to help the community heal after the incident and played a major role in Sandy Hook Elementary School’s recovery for years afterward. She has worked in crisis response for five years and helps school and workplace administrators develop both short-term and long-term trauma response efforts.

The event would not have been possible without Matthew Gasparrini ’20 (left) and Dr. Neal Lipsitz (right), who worked to bring Jen Marr (center) to campus.

Marr described the format of her presentation as: “Seven Lessons if Dogs Could Talk: What We Can Learn About Comfort Through Dogs.” She spoke about each of the lessons alongside photographs and text displayed in a slideshow. 

Here are the seven things dogs would say about how they comfort people:

1. “We put others first.”

Marr spoke about how in times of crisis it is dogs who are always there for you. During her time at Sandy Hook, she noticed that while people were aware that their peers were struggling, they did not know how to communicate with and care for them. Dogs, on the other hand, knew what to do. 

Marr said that a dog has a brain similar to that of a toddler: “They never lose that sense of joy, of adventure, and never lose that sense of trust.” She described the idea of comfort as something that comes from the heart, rather than the brain. “Dogs are all heart,” she stated, adding that there is a difference between the brain and heart when it comes to processing a traumatic situation. 

The brain is the part that analyzes, advises, and wonders “why,” while the heart cares, understands, and wonders “how.” It is the heart that wants to know how someone is hurting and how it can validate and support someone. This is the basis of comfort, and dogs are fine-tuned to it because they lead with care through their hearts.

2. “We are present and loyal.”

Similar to how Holy Cross seeks to cultivate men and women for and with others, dogs are always “with you.” Marr shared her experience with a girl who was withdrawn and haunted after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. Addy, one of the comfort dogs Marr worked with, helped this girl heal. The golden retriever was there for her every day, and the two eventually formed a bond through tasks such as brushing. On the girl’s birthday, Addy gave her a nose-kiss. The girl, who had learned to re-focus on tasks through taking care of the dog, had made a tremendous recovery through her canine friend.

Marr spoke about the “Awkward Zone,” a term she uses for when we are unsure of what to say to someone else during a hard time. There are three choices in a situation like this: 

The first is to “look the other way,” which would lead us to remove ourselves from the scenario completely. The second is what she calls “one and done,” where we do something nice as a one-time interaction and move on. The third is the “Awkward Zone,” which may feel uncomfortable but offers a lot more from the resulting relationship.

Addy chose the “Awkward Zone” and stayed with the girl throughout her recovery process. Her consistent presence and everyday interactions made a difference.

“Every act is a marble in a marble jar,” Marr explained. Each marble is a day-to-day interaction, and as the jar fills up, a special relationship forms. “It is the accumulation of little acts that matter the most.” 

3. “We recognize when you’re hurting.”

Marr started this point of her presentation with a common statement: “We are all dealing with something.” It is up to us to see that in others. She spoke about the 2006 film “We Are Marshall,” which depicts the recovery of the community around Marshall University after the school’s football team died in a tragic plane crash in 1970.

The movie’s tagline reads: From the Ashes We Rose. The story of “We Are Marshall,” is one of resilience as a community heals from trauma. Forty years after the crash, a survivor of the tragedy wrote a book and said, regarding the experience: “It’s always with you.”

However, Marr argued that something that is “always with you” is not necessarily a bad thing. “Sometimes, it can help to know that it’s always with you,” she added.

The important lesson here is to change the perspective on a situation. One step toward doing that is changing the vocabulary around recovery. The phrases to drop that Marr lists are “over it,” “moved on,” and “back to normal.” 

It is better to keep in mind that “the map has changed, the journey is different, and you can walk with them” on that new path.

4. “We listen.”

To understand this lesson, Marr stated that we must remember a big difference between talking and listening. Talking is repeating what we know, while listening is learning something new.

This was an interactive part of the presentation where the audience was asked to circle five traits that make them a good listener on a worksheet that Marr provided for the event. She asked two volunteers to read their answers out loud. Neither of them had matching responses.

“You can have 3,000 people do this activity and have no two people circling the same traits,” Marr said. This speaks to the uniqueness of each person as a listener. 

Jen Marr asked volunteers from the community to share the five traits they circled on the worksheet out loud with the audience.

Marr also spoke about a different issue that affects college students today. Using findings from Dr. Jean Twenge’s study on technology and social media usage, Marr argued that the current generation of college students are more likely to feel lonely. The study found a positive correlation between the increase in the use of smartphones and social media. 

“We are masters at having thousands of friends on social media, but amateurs at having 2-3 close friends,” Marr said. This is how feeling lonely differs from feeling alone, and a person can be lonely while surrounded by others. It is good to have a close friend who is a good listener to minimize the feeling of loneliness.

5. “We don’t need words.”

“Dogs don’t talk,” Marr stated. That is a good thing, as it can be hard to know what to say, and saying some things with discomfort or uncertainty can have consequences.

Marr shared a personal anecdote about a time she wrote about a family member’s present struggles on social media. Several people offered their sympathy and support, but her family wanted her to remove the post. It was not her story to tell.

She finished the story: “Words can sometimes get us in trouble, and especially on social media. Ask yourself the question: whose story is it to tell?” 

On the topic of social media, Marr showed the audience a chart about why a screen matters in communicating through words. Only 7% of our communication comes from spoken words, and the remaining, overwhelming source of connecting with others comes from tone of voice and body language. So much of one’s intent and access to social cues is lost through reducing messages to words on a screen. 

6. “We show up and bring people together.”

Dogs are inclusive. They show up to comfort everyone, no matter what.

In addition to helping after the Sandy Hook Shooting, Marr was also present at the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013. She saw training for the race as an “escape from sadness at Sandy Hook” and was shaken by the bombing. She said that the two tragedies had changed her brain.

Several friends offered her their support, but she brushed off their words with “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.” One of her friends went to her house and spent the next few weeks helping with her chores and errands. Marr stated her “brain was in a fog” and she did not realize that she needed the help with her daily life.

“When you go through a traumatic experience, sometimes you don’t know what you need,” she said. This is the importance of showing up.

7. “We are wired to do this.”

Marr taught the audience about the circle of comfort, which involves a person identifying that he or she takes times to think of others (self-identification), choosing to help someone who is hurting and sending them the right message (motivational analysis), reaching out despite the “Awkward Zone” (overcoming barriers), focusing on the other person and not themselves (connection/observation), and reflecting on the idea that helping someone else has helped him/herself as well (reflection/share out). She stated that this pattern is scientifically proven to promote empathetic responses.

“It’s how God wired you: you need others, and others need you,” Marr said. She added that the more you practice acts of kindness, the more you want to do them. This is the value of empathy, compassion, and one-on-one connections, which all come from an “intentional action straight from the heart.”

The next story Marr shared with the audience was about going to a wedding. Her friend, the bride, wanted her to bring one of the dogs to the venue. Marr was unsure of what to do; she did not have a formal invitation to the event. “We misread situations all the time,” she reflected. She almost did not go to the wedding because she felt awkward, but she went with one of the dogs. Her friend was overjoyed to see the dog on her special day, and Marr was glad that she chose to show up and make her happy.

Conclusion and Workshops

At the end of her presentation, Marr left the audience with a quote that is relevant in our community today. In a time of hardships and struggling, it is important to remember, in the words of Helen Keller: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” The goal of Jen Marr’s work is not only to  provide comfort to those in need of it, but also to foster a sense of resilience in hurting communities.

Marr received loud applause at the end of the discussion and stayed for a brief book signing and two workshops. One took place in Hogan Suite A with the college’s peer educators, who thought about ways they could apply the seven lessons to their everyday interactions. They also got a visit from Keeva, a German shepherd-Akita mix who works as a therapy dog through Animal Assisted Therapy Services (AATS), an organization that serves Worcester county. Keeva and her handler Kim, who were both regular visitors to campus, were at the event as well.

After the presentation, campus peer educators got a visit from Keeva the Therapy Dog and discussed how they could apply what they learned to their roles at Holy Cross.

The other workshop was directed toward the RAs, who attended a listening exercise with Marr. Each participant received a packet with a few worksheets. The goal of this activity was to help the RAs learn how to better understand and comfort their residents, and to provide an opportunity of self-reflection on their interactions. 

Each attendee moved to sit with someone they did not know very well. “Each person is dealing with something we may or may not know about,” Marr said. After pairs of RAs listened to each other speak for around 10 minutes, everyone created a special card for their new friend. Marr called this her “Paws for Thought” exercise, and shared that this is what she uses with staff in professional settings. Each RA was asked to decorate their cards with quotes and sayings that would provide comfort and motivation to the other person, and write personal, heartfelt notes on the back. Marr emphasized the importance of “honesty, openness, and heart-not-brain” for this exercise.

Through a listening exercise, the RAs got to know others they did not know well before.

After listening to each other speak about their experiences, the RAs made cards with words of inspiration and motivation and wrote personalized notes to their conversation partner.

In the last part of the workshop, the RAs read what they had written for their partners out loud and explained why they had chosen those specific words for their cards. Marr stated, in her closing remarks, that each person had less than 10 minutes to listen to each other and still knew what to write on their cards. It is easier to connect with people than you think.

Photos by Hui Li ’21.

Categories: features

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