Papillon Center Specializes In The Foreign Language Of Grief

The Carmel Pine Cone
Volume 102 No. 41
Oct. 7 – 13,  2016
By DENNIS TAYLOR

There’s a language school in Monterey, a place where people gather to speak in tongues known only to those who understand how it feels to live with profound grief.

Dark as that might sound, it’s hard to imagine a place where hope shines more brightly than at Papillon Center for Loss and Transition, where people familiar with great personal loss connect with others wandering that same world — and those who found their way out.

Restoring hope is a goal that often feels unattainable to people who feel isolated with their pain. But participants at Papillon (French for “butterfly”) testify that hope reemerges, and their path brightens, when they discover that their experience is not unique.

“It’s not a pill,” said Papillon client Jenny Rose, “but it feels like one.”

‘A nice conversation’

Hope and happiness were all around Jenny and Don Rose on August 10, 2015, as they drove back to the Monterey Peninsula from Lake Tahoe, talking on the phone to their 25-year-old daughter, Madison. In four more days, the Roses would celebrate the birth of a granddaughter, and soon to- be Aunt Maddie was so thrilled that she was moving north from Southern California to be near her newborn niece. “We had such a nice conversation with her. Jenny and I were so excited that we’d all be close together again,” Don said. “And then, 20 minutes after we hung up, Maddie was dead.”

Their daughter had been driving on I-5, headed home to Carmel. They speculate that she probably was looking down at her phone and failed to notice that traffic ahead had come to a complete stop. Her vehicle hit the back of a truck at high speed. There were no skid marks.

What can one say to parents who have experienced such crushing tragedy? “Thank God you have other children,” one person said to the Roses.

Another — a doctor — offered this bit of comfort: “Well, when one window closes, another one opens.”

A year after his daughter’s death, Don Rose still winces.

“People like to say, ‘Oh, you’ll get over it … you’ll be OK,’” he said. “No, we’re not going to get over it. And we’re not going to be OK because we have three children left. And another window isn’t going to open because our daughter died. There’s no opportunity there. People might be well meaning when they say these things, but they’re the wrong things to say to us. They don’t speak the language.”

“People often don’t have the words to describe their experience,” said Papillon facilitator and co-founder Joy Smith, a retired registered nurse whose specialty at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula was educating the families of people afflicted with cancer. “We often say that we live in a grief-illiterate world, so to come into a group where people know how to talk about these things can be a magical thing. A lot of the words that are used are not helpful, or not accurate. We’re always very aware of the language we’re developing as we talk about loss.”

Papillon Center was opened in 2014 by Smith and Helen Grady, a licensed marriage and family therapist with experience in grief counseling. The two had been co-facilitators for several years of a program called “Good Grief for Kids” at CHOMP.

When Grady’s husband, Jerry, died from cancer in 2011, the professional grief counselor came to grips with an irony: She, herself, needed help processing her loss, and didn’t know where to turn. That reality inspired Smith and Grady to open Papillon at 824 Munras Avenue in Monterey to assist people of all ages — children through elderly — through the trauma of bereavement.

Cooking for one

Among the programs offered to adults (all at no cost) are drop-in bereavement groups, stillborn or miscarriage death groups, “Cooking for One,” “Riding the Waves of Grief ” (adult psycho-education), and “Soul Collage” (a therapeutic art workshop). Grady and Smith brought “Good Grief for Kids and Teens” (including a week-long grieving camp) with them from CHOMP. The kids’ programs also are offered at no cost.

A third facilitator at Papillon Center, Meriam Little, was an East Coast lawyer for the federal government, just 30 years old, when her husband died. She was unable to find bereavement counseling appropriate for a person her age, and says she often heard the same tone-deaf lines from otherwise well-meaning people: “Oh, you’re so young. You’ll be OK. You’ll find someone else. It’ll get better.”

“The grief counselor I finally found actually specialized in children, which turned out to be ideal for me,” said Little, who discovered during those sessions that she also was still dealing with an earlier loss. “My grandmother died when I was 3, and the only explanation I got from my parents was, ‘Oh, Grandma’s gone … she went away.’ “I know that’s how parents think — they want to protect you — but kids are incredibly aware of what’s happening around them,” said Little, who, with Grady, presides over the “Good Grief ” program. “So having a way to give it a voice, a place where they can confront the hardness of it, but also the fact that it will get better. I think it’s incredible.”

Permission to talk

Sheila Benson, who lost her husband, Ben, to bladder cancer in February, not only participates in Papillon’s adult groups, but also brings her grandchildren to “Good Grief for Kids.”

“It normalizes death and gives them permission to talk about it, and work through the process of figuring out where Grandpa went,” Benson said. “Good grief is shared grief, and my 8-year-old granddaughter said it made her feel so much better to realize that others knew how she was feeling, and that it’s painful, and that it does get better. They’re always looking forward to the next session.”

The adult groups, populated by people initimate with the pain of loss, are a treasure trove of emotional and intellectual support, Jenny Rose says.

“After Maddie died, I literally thought I was going crazy. I knew I needed help, but had no idea what kind of help I needed, or where to find it,” she said. “I literally wanted to go off a cliff. The pain was too great. “This group taught us how to live with her death, and that’s really what you’re doing,” she added. “You’re living, you’re loving, and you’re missing her. But life goes on, and you live it.”

Solomon Terry, whose wife, Kathy, died 2014 after a 3 1/-year battle with lung cancer, says Papillon Center has been his lifeline. “Papillon opens up another world, enables us to express and share our grief. I have a new family now, and I love coming here,” he said. “There’s a flower inside every person, and we want to see that flower blossom again. Some people are completely closed up when they come, but the facilitators here have the ability to get those people over the hump. That’s what’s beautiful about this place.”

Information about Papillon Center can be obtained by calling (831) 320-1188 or found online at www.papillon-center.org.

Dennis Taylor is a freelance writer living in Monterey County. Contact him at scribelaureate@gmail.com.