The lives they lived: Cicely Saunders, hospice heroine, died aged 69 on 29 September

Hospice heroine, died aged 69 on 29 September, remembered by Kate Kellaway

I often think of Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement. I met her in the winter of 2002. In an interview for Prospect, I wrote: 'When Dame Cicely Saunders talks about death, it is as if she had died many times herself, without ill-effect. Her tone is of a well-travelled person, comfortable with her subject, who can tell us what to pack, what to say, how to prepare for another country.' Fittingly, the first hospice, founded in Sydenham in 1967, was named after St Christopher, patron saint of travellers.

Dame Cicely watched the three loves of her life die (all of them, strangely enough, Polish). Stranger still, she fell in love with the first two while they were terminally ill. David Tasma, a Polish Jew, didn't know a soul in England. Cicely (then a nurse) had to break the news to him that he was dying. A passionate friendship developed between them and he left her all his money - £500 - towards the new hospice. Her second great friend, Antoni Michniewicz, died in 1960 at the same time as her father (a Hertfordshire estate agent) and the double blow plunged her into 'pathological grieving'. But she was - learning the hard way - to discover that there can be a 'creativity in bereavement if you tap into it'. The third Pole was her husband, the artist and Professor Marian Bohusz-Szyskzko. She bought his picture of Christ calming the waters. He turned out to be adept at calming the waters himself: before he died, he told her he was 'completely happy'.

Dame Cicely had such a companionable attitude to death it was tempting to fancy that she might be able to talk her way out of it, that she might prove personally immune. After all, she had tremendous powers of persuasion: the hospice movement could not have begun without her force of character and faith in God (her most reliable sponsor). She had won the neighbourhood's heart, too: children dug the first hospice gardens, the local fire brigade hung the curtains.

After leaving Oxford (where she read PPE at St Anne's), she worked in nursing and social work before retraining as a doctor to study pain relief. Since then, St Christopher's has trained more than 50,000 students and spread palliative care to 120 countries. Even people without religious belief, she told me, discovered that 'care itself can be spiritual, improving selfworth'. Hospices celebrate life as well as promoting pain-free death.

I waved goodbye to her on the doorstep of her suburban house in Sydenham, knowing that I would never see her again. She had told me, without fuss, that she had cancer. She did not wish to deny or dwell upon it. I remember the mutinous sparkle in her eye, the combination of faith (she converted to Christianity as an adult), warmth and unconventionality. She collected china frogs. I kept catching the bulging eye of the largest green frog in her sitting room. 'Love,' she said simply, 'is stronger than death.'

Dame Cicely died, fittingly, at St Christopher's hospice.


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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