Name: Carol Kummet
Tell me about the person who died:
I was a new master of social work in 1992 when I first met Dr. Stu Farber, who was the medical director of a hospice program. Stu and I worked together for three years, after which I went to another hospice, while he moved to the Family Medicine Department at the University of Washington Medical Center and founded the Palliative Care Service there. In 2010 Stu called me to say that they were hiring a palliative care social worker, and I came back to join him. I was so lucky to be able to work on Stu's palliative care team. For four years, as a hospice and palliative care social worker and bereavement counselor, I cared for many patients and families, but I also ended up caring for Stu himself—my mentor, advocate, and friend—through his illness and death from leukemia. I'm not uncomfortable around grief and loss. Stu’s death, especially so shortly after the death of my mother, was unlike any sorrow I had ever felt.
Stu lived a life of service, teaching, and mentorship. His best teaching tool was his all out joy in the ability to be present for patients, families, and staff members who faced serious illness and uncertainty. Stu saw patients as people with stories, hopes, concerns, and strengths, and he trained generations of MDs to do the same. He taught us to apply our knowledge of the patient's story—what he called a patient’s “narrative thread”—to the medical care that person received. For example, he would challenge us to understand what, for each patient, was more important: fighting for more time in the hospital, or going home to be with family, even if it might mean less time alive. He loved to facilitate ways that families could support patients’ care, to allow them to die in their own homes, their own beds, with all they loved around them.
While Stu was dying, he wrote an essay about his experience in The Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. In it, he writes, “Personally, I always knew that I was going to die. I just didn’t believe it. Now I get it to my core. I am mortal. Knowing I am mortal is a sacred knowledge that makes each moment an awesome gift filled with opportunity for love, joy, and peace. It has transformed how I live my life. If I know I am mortal, then what is important? Sharing love and joy within my relationships: with myself, my wife, my family, my grandchildren, my friends, my colleagues, and the community in this very moment we are living.”
Stu died from leukemia on Feb. 27, 2014.
What has your experience of grief been like since your loss? How did it change over time?
From the first I found that all I had been counseling the bereaved about was true, all so true. I could not concentrate, I became irritable, I gained weight, I experienced changes in my sleep patterns, and I felt an exhaustion that I worried would never lift. Please remember that Stu died just after my mother—these two people were such supports and advocates for me. I felt so vulnerable after their deaths.
Stu’s counsel about grief has helped me through the process of grieving him. In his essay, he writes, “Grief is neither a problem to be solved nor a disease to be cured. It is a process to be experienced and supported that has added richness and meaning to my life I did not know possible. Once again, grief has been one of the many paradoxes that has leavened my life.”
Now I have more energy and my other grief symptoms have subsided. I am now working on creating lasting legacies for both Stu and Mom as I continue in relationship with them.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like at different points since your loss?
Barren. Exhausted. The weight of the world on my shoulders. Vulnerable.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
Stu and I were teaching a group of medical students the topic of grief and loss. He had such a great way of drawing out the students to make it safe for them to share their emotions. He asked the students for words to describe when they felt most alive, and wrote some of their comments on the super-old-school chalkboard: euphoria, freedom, peace, chronos, connected, authentic, colorful, laughter. I loved the look of it so I took a photo.
He also used "words that work" to elicit a patient's story. Those words are our outline in helping patients and their families tell their stories in light of their medical situation.
How did the people in your life support you in your grief? What was helpful? What was frustrating?
What was helpful was when people listened and allowed me to tell stories. What was frustrating was people assuming I'd be “over it” more quickly than humanly possible.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?:
I had the amazing fortune to care for Stu with the help of Dr. Katie Schlenker. Katie and I were all too aware that we were the palliative care team for the palliative care team's director and mentor. Katie supported me in my grief.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
How all-consuming it was.
How did your private grieving relate to your public mourning?
I needed to continue to offer grief support to others because of my job as a grief counselor, so I often cried in private. I learned a lot from my bereaved clients as they expressed their grief.
Was there anything about your cultural or religious background that affected the grieving process for you?
I'm from Minnesota and we are a people that talk about death and dying. That helped.
How did your loss and your experience of grief change you?
My range of emotions is broader—I’m more sad about the small losses and more joyful about the small comforts.
I’ve been thinking about the way that Stu closes his essay on the process of his own dying. “As I gaze into mortality,” he writes, “love sits in the center of my consciousness. Love is the inspiration that creates my courage to move forward as a caregiver to my wife, a patient receiving care, a father accepting support from my children, and a human simultaneously living and inevitably dying in the miracle of this world. As I sit with my medical caregivers, I see fear of failure at the center of their consciousness, with death being the ultimate defeat. These professionals actively, albeit unconsciously, convey that living longer is always preferable to dying, but they fail to appreciate that the most important act is to support living in harmony with a narrative thread. It is another of the many paradoxes that I live within.”
Carol Kummet is a Minnesotan living in Seattle where she is a hospice and palliative care social worker. Although a dog person, Carol currently lives with a cat named Lila in honor of her lovely aunt who died in 1996; she plans to adopt a dog once she retires. She loves her work, her family, reading, and quilting.
This is the last post from Grief Landscapes, an art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants shared an experience with bereavement, and I photographed an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story. - Mindy Stricke