An Obituary for our Mother, Donna Marie Spencer (1942 – 2022)
Dr. Donna Spencer – mom to three children, nana to six grandchildren, friend to many, and beloved psychotherapist to countless more – died peacefully on Saturday, July 23, 2022 at her home in the Central West End of St. Louis, MO. Her children Sean, Matt, and Mary (along with her treasured grandpup, Pearlie) were by her side. In the weeks before her passing, Donna said that she was ready for her “next adventure” – having “lived a full life with no regrets and no loose ends.”
Donna was born in 1942 in Leominster, MA. After being crowned prom queen and graduating high school, she joined the Sisters of Mercy as a semi-cloistered nun. Whenever she told people that she used to be a nun, she loved to add, “That was a long time ago… I’m doing fine, but God is still recovering” – and she always got big laughs from everyone in the room. She’d usually go on to explain that she also had to do a year of silence and that she’s “still making up for it” (she certainly loved to talk!).
As it turns out, the convent wasn’t a great fit for her, but she got a lot out of her eight years as Sister Mary Trinity, including: a college degree (the first in her family), a ticket out of her small hometown, and truly incredible ironing skills (which she would later use for the “just right” tablecloth for one of her signature dinner parties). In time, she found her way to Saint Louis University, where she earned her masters in social work and doctorate in education. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Donna worked as a social worker for Catholic Charities, she taught and mentored students as a professor of social work at Saint Louis University (SLU) and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and she started practicing psychotherapy.
Her time at SLU was incredibly formative; it was the first time that she had deeply connected with others over ideas and writing. It lit a spark in her. It was also around this time that she began her work with Milton Erickson and Gerhard Adler, two greats in the worlds of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Erickson and Adler (along with Adler’s wife, Hella) mentored our mom – helping her find her own voice and understand her unique value as a psychotherapist. From that point forward – to paraphrase Alicia Keys – “this girl was on fire!”
From the mid-1980s until June of this year, she worked almost exclusively as a psychotherapist in her own private practice in Clayton and the Central West End. It feels strange to even call this “work” because, for her, it was so much more. She had a true gift for helping people. It’s not uncommon to hear clients (and countless others in her orbit) credit Donna with saving their lives, their marriages, their families – or describe her as the most impactful person in their lives. And she often helped people regardless of their ability to pay. As long as they were up for doing the work, she was up for helping them do it. She prided herself in telling clients of all stripes that she was prepared to “fire them” as clients if they weren’t committed to doing the hard work required to create change and improve their lives. In addition to working directly with clients, Donna also shared her ideas and insights through lectures, workshops, and writing throughout much of her career.
Of all her accomplishments, her most cherished one was being “Mom” and “Nana.” She was far from the traditional mother or grandmother. She didn’t believe in rules (the only rule in our house was “don’t lie to Mom”); she was almost always late to pick us up from school; and she didn’t cook or bake (indeed, she never learned how!). But she loved us with an unmatched fierceness every step of the way; she found joy around every corner (and if she couldn’t find it, she created it); she encouraged us to take our own paths, trusting we’d find our way; she made sure we understood our value as individuals and as professionals; and she taught us to love ourselves through her genuine example of self-love.
Several years ago, our mom gave Mary a key chain in the shape of a heart that said, “Choose Happy.” Our mother was a happy person. She got the biggest kick out of life. And at every turn, she chose happy. May we all do the same.
We would also like to draw your attention to a tribute that our dear friend Melissa Fuoss wrote for our mother; it captures her colorful personality and approach to life so beautifully. You can find it here: https://covid19mademedoit.wordpress.com/2022/07/26/look-for-the-light-be-the-light/
Finally, we invite you to leave a note below if you wish – it could be a note about what our mom meant to you or even just a funny memory you might have of her. Anything really… there are no rules in Donna land 😉
Donna is survived by her three children and their spouses – Sean (Kelly) Spencer, Matt (Kate) Spencer, Mary Slosar (Luis Camacho); her six grandchildren – Slayton, Reilly, Ima, Mayu, George, and Henry; and her five grandpups – Chester, Quinn, Toby, Alice, and Pearlie.
Donna’s family will host a private life celebration at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, Donna’s family asks that you consider making a donation to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network in her memory – either online at pancan.org/donate or through the mail at 1500 Rosecrans Ave., Suite 200, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266.