Good Grief

Papillon Center cofounders oncology nurse Joy Smith (left) and therapist Helen Grady expect to close the nonprofit later this year once the board unwinds all financial responsibilities.

The Papillon Center for Loss and Transformation has, since its launch in 2013, used butterflies as a metaphor for helping people face the loss of loved ones. Something has died but there is new life on the other side of that death. In early 2020, the small nonprofit that runs grief support groups seemed poised for growth, but Covid-19 hit suddenly. Like a butterfly, Papillon – the French word for “butterfly” – is facing its own kind of death and transformation.

The nonprofit’s core programs are in-person, drop-in grief support groups led by trained volunteer facilitators. There are separate groups for adults and children facing loss – with specialized groups for loss of a child or loss of an infant or miscarriage – and another that helps those who have lost pets. The groups are free so Papillon relied on donations and grants to pay for a part-time executive director and rent.

“We felt like we were on the cusp of a growth spurt, but the pandemic turned everything upside down,” says former executive director Yvonne Ricketts. All programs ceased until staff and volunteers figured out how to take the support groups online. They were able to secure a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program but when it came to grants, they hit a wall. A grief support nonprofit was not deemed essential like organizations providing food and shelter, funders told the group. Private donations also fell. “We had to take a hard look at how we sustain our services,” Ricketts says.

Instead of walking away, the board of directors chose to find homes for the support groups in other nonprofits. The first group to find a home was for pet bereavement. The BirchBark Foundation provides financial assistance to pet owners who can’t afford expensive veterinary care in cases of a life-threatening or life-compromising illness or injury. Pre-covid, BirchBark was already providing grief support groups in Santa Cruz County. Michelle Frampton, BirchBark’s executive director, calls the opportunity to take on the Papillon group a “beautiful moment” and an opportunity to provide the service in Monterey County.

Next came the children’s grief support groups. Papillon found a good fit with Coastal Kids Home Care in Salinas, which serves children who are ill, suffering from injuries, or facing end of life. The group already had bereavement counseling for family members and was set to move into a new building that could be a meeting place for in-person groups post-Covid. “It seemed like it was meant to be,” Ricketts says.

Finding homes for the adult groups was more difficult. Papillon went back to Coastal Kids. Although the name and services imply children, Ruth Shapiro, Coastal Kids’ director of bereavement services, says they serve mostly adults – parents and grandparents.

Coming to the realization that the group she co-founded with Helen Grady would not survive the pandemic was hard at first, says Joy Smith, a Papillon facilitator. She calls it the “loss of a dream that Helen and I put a lot of love and effort into.” But Smith acknowledges the grief of that loss. “It probably makes it somewhat easier because I know the process,” she says.

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