Guardian angel: How a bereaved mother became ready to dance again

After Michelle Leigh lost her son, she stopped dancing. The Guardian Angel sends her to a class with a former Strictly dancer

The last words Oli Leigh ever said to his mother were, “Mum, you forgot to buy the Ribena,” remembers Michelle Leigh, 52, a bookkeeper from Borehamwood, Hertfordshire.

It was an ordinary evening – a good one, even. Oli had eaten dinner with his mum, something he’d lately refused to do. “He was always so moody,” she says, “he would eat dinner in his bedroom, which I hated.”

The following morning, Leigh was at work when she got a phone call from the police. The officer told her that she needed to come home, now. The drive home took 40 minutes. She was shaking.

At home, the police gave her the news. Oli had died by suicide at 2am on 1 May 2018. He was 16.

Since that day, Leigh’s charitable foundation, the Oli Leigh Trust, has raised over £75,000 to help fund youth-focused suicide prevention charities. On the third anniversary of Oli’s death, she asked her local community to wear orange, his favourite colour, and donate in his memory. For mental health week, the trust asked students to write in about the impact of Covid on their mental health (children’s mental health referrals doubled in the pandemic).

Michelle Leigh jiving with former Strictly dancer Andrew Cuerden
Michelle jiving with former Strictly dancer Andrew Cuerden. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

“It is hard to remind yourself that your friends are out there because you cannot see them,” wrote one year 11 student. “I’ll never find love,” wrote another.

Leigh also goes into schools and talks to secondary students about mental health. “I tell them the truth,” she says. “Oli wasn’t always a happy person. Happy people don’t take their own lives. I tell them they have to be honest about their feelings. No one will judge them.”

The children open up to her. They contact her privately and tell her they’ve been struggling. They talk about social media and the photo-editing apps that make them look thin. They tell her that they’re going to speak to someone about how they feel. “I say that’s really good,” Leigh tells me. Her dream is to one day be able to fund a counsellor in every school.

Leigh will talk about Oli to anyone who asks, even if it takes a personal toll. She spends 80 hours a week working on the charity, reading up on mental health, thinking up fundraising campaigns, recruiting committee members and holding events. “Parents need to never give up on their children,” she says. “Communicate with the schools. And make time for their kids, talk about what is going on with them.”

“To commit herself to fighting the cause so other parents don’t have to go through it,” says her partner and fellow trustee Steven Salamon, “is incredible.”

All of this is in addition to working three days a week as a bookkeeper. “I’m not a saint,” she insists. “I’m not!” The charity work helps her feel that Oli’s death was not for nothing.

Everyone always asks Leigh what happened to Oli. Michelle can only piece together fragments. “I think the exams were a worry to him,” she says. “But I also think that he really had just had enough. He couldn’t see a future.”

Oli was an inquisitive, happy child. He started to change around the age of 14.

“His lights went out. He became very insular. His bedroom door was closed. If you went in, he’d say, ‘What are you doing here?’ He’d turn off his phone, and he began misbehaving in an attempt to get kicked out of school. He hated it there.”

Leigh, who survived cancer a few years ago, does not obsessively ruminate on her grief. She tries to be happy every day. “I am a positive person,” she says. “I am still standing. I am still here.” She is Jewish. In her faith, there is a year of mourning after the death of a loved one. “You can’t listen to music,” she says, “or dance.” She used to love dancing: “I was a bit of a party queen when I was younger.” She’d go to the Hippodrome in London and dance to disco music until 4am, then get up for work at 7am.

Even though her year of mourning is long over, Leigh hasn’t danced since Oli left. But now she feels ready. “To be able to dance a fast routine or something jazzy would be really cool,” she says. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.” She is a huge Strictly fan.

The Guardian contacted former Strictly dancer Andrew Cuerden, who now works as a dance therapist, helping people find their feet – and joy – through dance. He immediately volunteered to give a complimentary lesson.

On a warm October afternoon, they met in a studio in east London. Leigh was nervous, but ready to jive. (She didn’t want to try anything like a tango, or a rumba: “Too sexy!”) Cuerden did not go easy on her. “It was full on!” she giggles, when we catch up later. “I was bright red at the end of it. I did the whole routine, though I can’t say all the steps were in the right order. Oh my lordy lord.”

Cuerden was a hit, too. “They’re so solid, these people,” Leigh says of professional dancers. “You touch them and their bodies don’t move!”

Her laugh sounds like the bubbles in champagne. “It was amazing,” she says. “Such good fun. What a nice man. I loved every minute of it.”

After so many years, and so much tragedy, dancing again felt like an act of reclamation.

“It was therapeutic,” she says. “And it was so lovely to laugh at myself, which my family always does anyway. To be free, and to dance.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

Want to nominate someone for Guardian angel? Email us – with their permission – and suggest a treat at guardian.angel@theguardian.com

Contributor

Sirin Kale, the Guardian Angel

The GuardianTramp

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