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Dame Cicely Saunders

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To introduce students to the work of Dame Cicely Saunders and the hospice movement, seen as 'Communities of Hope', and to aid reflection on what it takes to stand up for and alongside people who suffer. 

Preparation and materials

  • Readers for the quotations.


Perhaps you have never heard of her, but Dame Cicely Saunders is an important figure, whose work should interest us all. She is a pioneer. The boundaries she has broken are not those of far distant lands, or of wild, uncharted territory. They are the boundaries that for many years surrounded our own lives, boundaries created by ourselves and our society: they are the apparent boundaries of suffering and death. Dame Cicely was a pioneer of the hospice movement. 

Until comparatively recently, people seemed afraid to talk about death and suffering. Perhaps that was partly because there were fewer possibilities for treatment and the ease of pain. But one particular experience of Dame Cicely’s was to become instrumental in improving life for many people in the future. Here is the start of her story: 

READER: 'Well, it began with one patient. I was invalided from nursing and I became a medical social worker. In the first ward I took over in St Thomas’s there was [David], a Polish Jew of forty who had an inoperable cancer. I followed him up in Outpatients and when he was admitted to another hospital I visited him about twenty-five times in the two months that he was dying. We really became very fond of each other. Before he died he made his will and talking about it he said, 'I'll be a window in your home.' 

A window in your home? What could he have meant? For Cicely Saunders it represented a call and commitment to open St Christopher's... 

READER: the world, to patients and families, to each other, to beyond, and to be open to all challenges. On another occasion he said, 'I only want what is in your mind and in your heart.' That was a very personal exchange but thinking about it afterwards he meant us to use our minds, all the scientific rigour, all the research, all the learning that could be done but always with the friendship of the heart. After he died, having made his peace with the God of his fathers - he was an agnostic when I met him - I knew that he had made his own journey and thinking about it I thought, 'Yes - in the freedom of the spirit'. 

So those are the three founding aims of the hospice: openness, mind together with heart, freedom of the spirit. 

That's how it all started. He died in February 1948 and it took me nineteen years to build the home round the window.'

As a result of David’s small bequest it was possible to start working towards that ‘home round the window’. Cicely Saunders retrained as a doctor and a group of like-minded people came together from many diverse backgrounds, forming what Cicely Saunders calls ‘a community of the unlike’, and they all thought about what was needed. Today there are homes round a multitude of windows worldwide. Some - like St Christopher’s where Cicely Saunders (now aged 81) still works - have a Christian foundation but are open to all. Others are run by different faith groups, or are not faith-based, but they all share similar values. These are the values at St Christopher’s: 


•           To affirm life without hastening death and to regard death as a normal process;

•           To respect the worth and individuality of each person for whom we care;

•           To offer relief from pain and other distressing symptoms;

•           To help patients with strong and unfamiliar emotions;

•           To help them to rediscover meaning, purpose and value in their lives;

•           To offer the opportunity to reconcile and heal relationships and complete important personal tasks;

•           To offer a support system for family and friends during the patient’s illness and in bereavement. 

These are the values for which Dame Cicely Saunders and her colleagues have worked. Whether we ever come into direct contact with a hospice or not, they have changed all our lives.

Time for reflection

This prayer was chosen from Dame Cicely’s book ‘Beyond the Horizon - A Search for Meaning in Suffering’ (published by Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1990. The prayer is on page 11). It was written by a patient at St Christopher’s Hospice. This is how Dame Cicely introduces it in her book: 

'...[a] patient with paralysis who suffered keenly all the humiliations of loss and dependence found an unexpected freedom and fellowship there and came close to God in the end. He came to the Poetry Workshop [at St Christopher’s] where others had to read his poems for him.' 

I find prayer so powerful
That I need but one:
Heavenly Father
Grant me the wisdom
To see the good
In everyone
And everything.
You know my needs:
I do not need to ask.
I appreciate your gifts.

James Haylock Eyre

Bible reading: Psalm 23


'Bridge Over Troubled Water' by Simon & Garfunkel

Publication date: January 2014   (Vol.16 No.1)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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