Guardian angel: how a bereaved mother got back to dancing | Mental Health


The last words Oli Leigh said to her mother were: ‘Mum, you forgot to buy the Ribena,’ recalls Michelle Leigh, 52, an accountant in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire.

It was an ordinary evening – a good one. Oli had had dinner with his mother, which he had recently refused to do. “He was always so moody,” she said, “he had dinner in her room, which I hated.”

The next morning, Leigh was at work when she received a phone call from the police. The officer told her she had to go home now. The trip to the house took 40 minutes. She was shaking.

At home, the police told her the news. Oli had committed suicide at 2 am on May 1, 2018. He was 16 years old.

Since that day, Leigh’s charitable foundation, the Oli Leigh Trust, has raised over £ 75,000 to help fund suicide prevention charities focused on youth. On the third anniversary of Oli’s death, she asked her local community to wear orange, her favorite color, and make a donation in her memory. For Mental Health Week, the trust asked students to write about the impact of Covid on their mental health (children’s mental health credentials doubled during the pandemic).

Michelle jiving with the old Strictly dancer Andrew Cuerden. Photography: Alicia Canter / The Guardian

“It’s hard to remember your friends are there because you can’t see them,” wrote one grade 11 student. “I’ll never find love,” wrote another.

Leigh also goes to schools and talks to high school students about mental health. “I’m telling them the truth,” she said. “Oli was not always a happy person. Happy people don’t kill themselves. I tell them they need to be honest about their feelings. No one will judge them.

Children open up to her. They contact her privately and tell her they’re having a hard time. They talk about social media and photo editing apps that make them look slim. They tell her that they are going to talk to someone about how they feel. “I say it’s really good,” Leigh told me. His dream is to one day be able to finance a counselor in each school.

Leigh will tell anyone who asks him about Oli, even if it has a personal impact. She spends 80 hours a week working for the charity, reading about mental health, imagining fundraisers, recruiting committee members and organizing events. “Parents should never abandon their children,” she says. “Communicate with schools. And take time for their kids, talk about what’s going on with them.

“To commit to fighting for the cause so that other parents don’t have to go through this,” says partner and fellow fiduciary Steven Salamon, “is amazing. “

All this in addition to working three days a week as an accountant. “I’m not a saint,” she insists. “I’m not!” Charitable 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 worried him,” she says. “But I also think he had really had enough. He couldn’t see a future.

Oli was a curious and happy child. He started to change around the age of 14.

“His lights went out. He has become very insular. The door to his room was closed. If you walked in he would say, “What are you doing here?” He turned off his phone and started behaving badly in an attempt to get kicked out of school. He hated it there.

Leigh, who was a cancer survivor a few years ago, doesn’t obsessively brood over her grief. She tries to be happy every day. “I’m a positive person,” she says. “I’m still standing. I’m still here. “She’s Jewish. In her faith, there is a year of mourning after the death of a loved one.” You can’t listen to music, “she said,” or dance. ” She loved to dance: “I was a bit of a party queen when I was younger. She would go to the Hippodrome in London and dance to disco music until 4 in the morning, then get up to work. at 7 a.m.

Even though her year of mourning has long been over, Leigh has not danced since Oli left. But now she feels ready. “Being able to dance a quick 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 the former Strictly dancer Andrew Cuerden, who now works as a dance therapist, helping people find their feet – and their joy – through dance. He immediately volunteered to give a free lesson.

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

Cuerden was also successful. “They are so solid, these people,” Leigh says of professional dancers. “You touch them and their bodies don’t move!” “

His laughter resembles champagne bubbles. “It was amazing,” she says. “Such good fun. What a nice man. I loved every minute of it. “

After so many years and so many tragedies, dancing once again felt like an act of recuperation.

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

In the UK and Ireland, The Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the Lifeline crisis helpline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines are available at

Want to nominate someone for Guardian angel? Email us – with their permission – and suggest a treat to [email protected]


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