The Courage in Compassion:
My Mother’s Greatest Gift

by Irene Allison

“Courage and compassion are two sides of the same coin.
Compassion without courage is not genuine.
You may have a compassionate thought or impulse,
but if you don’t do or say anything, it’s not real compassion.”
― Kaisaku Ikeda

My mother taught me a lot of things: how to bake brownies, hem a skirt, and speak out against injustice. Most importantly she taught me how to find courage in the face of another’s suffering.

That might seem a strange thing for a mother to teach her daughter, but she was a nurse, who by miracle had survived the ferocious bombings of Clydebank, Scotland in the Second World War. So she knew a lot about the frontiers of life.

From nursing infectious disease, to assisting in the operating room, to comforting in hospice, my mother always put patients first. They were at the front of her mind and the center of her heart. She was a warrior-healer, who, for the sake of a patient, never resisted battle.

From my mother I learned about medical drama and how sometimes hospitals resemble war zones. Throughout my childhood, she shared stories at family dinner, over plates of leathery liver and slushy onion. Like the time she had to pull the emergency cord in the middle of an operation because the surgeon was failing, the patient dying. Or when surgery had started on a patient not yet fully anesthetized.

“Poor fellow,” mother said, “his knuckles were white. Soon as I noticed, I pulled the alarm.”

Mu-um! That’s what I would have said if my ten-year old vocal chords could have moved. But they were frozen in place, just like the chunk of liver that had lodged itself at the back of my throat.

That was my childhood. A steady, daily dose of the inside scoop from hospital life. It didn’t turn me into a nurse. I’m too squeamish for that. But it gave me enormous admiration for the courage behind my mother’s compassion.

Soon after my twelfth birthday, my school visited a local nursing home. The idea was to offer games and free donuts. Somehow I got separated from the other kids and ended up in the room of an ancient man, so wizened, he looked like he was carved from stone. As the door snapped shut behind me, his head spun in my direction. Then his blood-shot eyes tasered me in place.

“Clara,” he cried, “it’s YOU.”

His sharp, bony arms sprung wide in an offer of embrace.

I froze. My name’s not Clara. I don’t know anyone named Clara.

“Clara,” he cried again, a twisted urgency rising in his voice, “DAR-LING.”

Then he crumbled into great, heaving sobs.

My insides shrank. My bones shrank. Crushed by the enormity of this old man’s grief and his longing for Clara, I cratered.

Never in my twelve years had I felt so utterly helpless and scared. All I wanted was to escape. But first, I forced my shaking fingers into the cardboard box gripped tightly against my chest. My fingers fumbled before tugging out a single squashed donut.>

It was an offering of sorts. A donut in place of my courage.

I slapped the mangled donut down on an empty plate on the table. “That’s for you, sir,” I managed to sputter as my greasy, sugary fingers tugged at the handle of the door to exit.

I knew the offering was not enough. One small donut for a world of grief. But I was only twelve and helpless in the face of an old man’s suffering.

The thump of my heels as I tore down the hallway echoed my racing heart and magnified my shame. How could I have run away from an old man’s pain?

True enough, I was only twelve years old. And true enough, it’s often human nature to shrink from pain.

But not for my mother. She was different. She embraced the suffering of others and always offered comfort.

She understood the human side of illness. She understood that true compassion requires more than feeling; it requires the courage to take action, to step toward another in pain. For my mother, the ease of this courageous compassion seemed as natural as the air she breathed.

Surely this was why she had been invited to co-ordinate as head nurse the first hospice in Canada. This type of care embraces the unknown with an open heart and nonjudgmental mind. People who work in hospice are unsung heroes: fearless, compassionate caregivers willing to travel the boundaries of life.

Decades later, I found myself mulling over the nature of my mother’s fearless compassion. Nursing skills were obviously a part of it. But there had to be more.  Because if nursing skills were all it took, then hospitals would be overflowing with love.

It was a mystery to solve. And that mystery was all bound up with my mother’s life at the hospital.  It was time to tell the story.

So we collaborated on a book based on my mother’s experiences. And slowly but surely the mystery of my mother’s gift revealed itself.

From my mother I learned the unspoken things. I learned how fear stops us, just like it did in my childhood with the grieving old man in the nursing home. She taught me that rather than freezing with helplessness in the face of another’s suffering, we can reach past our fear to find courage in the simplest act of compassion.

She taught me that however small, “there is always something we can do” for someone in pain.

She taught me the profound gift of focused presence, of acceptance, of bearing witness, and of listening with deep listening ears. She taught me that you can be supportive of someone yet still cry with them. Or simply hold their hand. That if you remove false barriers and enter into that space of shared humanity, pain is eased. Because if you look through fear it can dissolve into love.

Of all the precious gifts my mother has given me, from life itself, to love and care and friendship, maybe this, the understanding that courage lies at the very heart of compassion is the greatest gift of all.

* * *

Irene Allison is co-author of Stay, Breathe with Me: The Gift of Compassionate Medicine, written together with her mother, Helen Allison, a pioneer in palliative care. Irene, a former technical author and teacher, lives with her husband on a west coast Canadian island where she just can’t seem to stop writing. Visit Irene at: or on Facebook at: