Learning Compassion and Passing it On

By Kate Kerry Spencer

Like a lot of children, I grew up with an alcoholic parent. I was the youngest child of my father’s second marriage. My dad was decades older than my mom. In my father’s maturity, my mother found a sense of safety and stability. In my mother’s youth, my father found a fresh start and a lighter heart. What they saw in each other was genuine. And like many couples, what they saw, revealed, and became to each other changed over the course of their marriage.

By the time I was old enough to be fully aware of my dad there was one sure thing I know about him: whenever he took a drink, the drink took him. He went on binges and always, afterwards, he would be overcome with sorrow and guilt. He would vow to never drink again, and he would break that vow every time. Accomplished for years at keeping up appearances, he became, over time, physically unable to appear anything other than what he was: a smart, kind, generous man who was dying from numerous complications of alcoholism and yes, a broken heart.

His was not the only heart that was broken in our family, but he was the only one of us who died from that heartbreak. After his death, my mother went into cold storage, functioning on the surface because that was what she was most gifted at doing. Beneath that surface was a chasm of grief. For years she put up a lovely front, getting by until one day, someday in the future, she could get through. And ultimately, she did get though, and quite beautifully.

My sister and I, the two offspring of the second marriage, dealt with living with Dad, and living without him, differently. And both of us dealt with living with, and without, our mother differently too. We both found and forged our way into healthy, happy adults.

One of the cornerstones of my finding my way through was a gifted doctor who is also a spiritual teacher. The blend of left brain, right brain, and compassionate spirit shines through in this person. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from this teacher is to listen to my heart and with my heart, knowing that sometimes the strongest messages start as a whisper. 

Recently, a beloved friend of this teacher became terribly ill and died. My teacher had been caring for her friend and texted me that in the process of caregiving, being a bit run down herself, and pulled in a number of meaningful and demanding directions, her memory was starting to get a little patchy in places sometimes. I texted her back the kind of real life prescription that she would give me:

There’s only so much any brain or heart can hold. Take naps, sip tea, eat chocolate, laugh till you cry and cry till you laugh.

She thanked me for the prescription, noting that given recent illnesses in my own family, I would be one who would know some remedies. I wrote her back that the reason I know these things is because she taught me how to recognize signs, both in myself and in others, of battle fatigue and all that comes with it.

Life comes full circle sometimes, and well-lived lives are often full of hard-earned lessons. Sometimes the way we make life a little more livable for others is by reminding them of the wisdom we once first learned from them.


When you wake this morning, take a few minutes to lie on your back, hand on your heart, and set your intention for the day. If you’ve been under stress and running in six directions recently, set your intention to deliberately show yourself some kindness and gentleness today, starting in this very moment, as your lie on your back, taking back some time for yourself.

When you get up, do something that you usually rush through—taking a shower, eating breakfast, getting dressed—in a more intentional way. Take time to actually feel the welcoming warmth of the shower, savor the taste of your morning coffee, really see the color and texture of your clothing. Find one thing to be thankful for, beginning with the start of a new day.

Tonight, go to bed a few minutes early. Lie down, put your hand on your heart and think about one thing you are grateful for today. Maybe it’s that shower you decided to be grateful for this morning, or maybe it’s the coffee or your shoes. Or maybe it’s a person you reached out to today who once helped you and today, you decided, in some way to help them too, even if that help was simply thanking them for being present in your life.



Kate Kerry Spencer is a Pacific Northwest writer, editor, and publisher. Learn more about her upcoming memoir, Smoke: A Story of Love, Lies and Cigarettes

Smoke is the story of fatal consolations--tobacco, denial and deceit--and the second chances that can come to us in the most unlikely places. For this mother and daughter it was a rehab center where the two women wrestled with cigarettes, scrambled brains and each other--and in the process, found the long way back to love.

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