In August 2016, Thelma and Ian Ridgway lost their 16-year-old son Lee to suicide.
Following his death, a version of Lee’s story was covered far and wide across local, regional and national headlines. It captured the attention of the UK, with details of how he died being shared to strangers who never had the pleasure of meeting him.
But Lee’s story was so much more than the news clippings and public inquest. His life was defined by so much more than the night he went on to take it. Lee was a son and a brother. He was a cherished friend and a brilliant student. A music lover and Man United fan. Lee was a “beacon of light”, a “ray of sunshine”, and he was loved.
Growing up in Stockport, Thelma says Lee was a “wilful” child. Like most teenage boys, he was quite the risk taker, but he’d always be sure to thoroughly research everything before giving it his heart and soul.
“Looking back now I can see that he was probably gifted,” says Thelma. “He would always weigh a situation up, even from being a toddler, and once he’d come to his own decision about something, he would pour himself wholeheartedly into it and then he would be the star of the show.
“He was a proper little beacon of light, he really was.”
After Lee’s death –as many families and friends who have lost someone to suicide will experience –Thelma and her family were left battling with feelings of hopelessness, shock, and guilt. They struggled with feelings of blame and faced the countless ‘what-ifs’ many people will ask themselves. However, they were quickly met with support from other bereaved individuals across the world and pointed in the direction of PAPYRUS and other support services that helped them to navigate their thoughts and next steps.
“Those people reaching out were my safe space at the time,” Thelma added, “If you can draw on other people’s experiences, it can help you navigate the unimaginable. I think that’s why it’s so important for me to now reach out now to bereaved people and let them know I’m here if they need me, because at that time your child is gone, you’re not in your own mind; you’re going mad. The world is so scary, the axis of your life has been changed and you need support at that time.”
In the weeks following Lee’s death, the family were inundated with guidance, advice and, most importantly, hope in their time of darkness. They were reassured they would be OK, and they would find their way back to strength. This reassurance, which was consistently coming in from all directions, inspired them to honour Lee’s name in a way that could offer hope and optimism not only for themselves, but for others who were tragically left in their situation.
Nicknamed “Sunshine” by his dad as a nod to their shared love for Oasis, the family set up Lee’s Sunshine Fund the following year and began organising a series of sun-themed events to raise awareness and money for PAPYRUS in Lee’s name. This spanned sunshine strolls, sunshine stalls selling sunshine merchandise, charity fashion shows and even pitching in a local Dragons Den event hosted by a local rotary club.
Since 2017, the Ridgway family have raised over £13,000 for PAPYRUS, excluding the donations made directly to us from their friends, family and supporters, and continue to reach out to others whose lives have been turned upside down by suicide.
Thelma says: “Part of Lee’s Sunshine Fund and Lee’s Sunshine Legacy are about offering hope. For some people, this will be the end of their world, they’ll never get over it. But I think if you’ve got it within you, you owe it to yourself to be able to support others, because the people who reached out to me, they were giving me reasons to want to survive.
“Everything we do for Lee’s Sunshine Fund is all about spreading awareness for PAPYRUS. I’d just like to think that in Lee’s hour of need, if he’d have known about PAPYRUS, he might have picked up the phone. When we were waiting for the hospital to get in touch, if we’d have known about PAPYRUS, we’d have been on the phone asking what we can do and how we can talk to Lee.
“So many people must be out of their depths like we were. So, for me, it’s a no brainer – it is worthy of every single penny we can put its way and in our teeny tiny way, we just want to make sure people know you’re there.”
Speaking about the advice she would give to others who have concerns about family, friends or other young people in their lives, Thelma is keen to encourage more people to educate themselves about suicidal thoughts and get in touch with PAPYRUS.
“At some point, every one of us in this world will have to deal with a distressed child or young person. You don’t have to have all the answers, even as a mother now of a son who took his life, I don’t have all the answers, but educate yourself on how to frame the questions.
“Learn about PAPYRUS. Have the conversations. Make sure your schools know about it. We’ve been saying this since the day Lee died, the people who have the most contact with your children alongside you as a parent, are schoolteachers, so everybody needs to have education, skills, a toolkit, ready for the time you encounter someone who needs some support.
“Don’t be blindsided. We had no idea what to do the night Lee told us how he was feeling. We were so out of our depth because it hadn’t been on our radar. If I knew 1/10th back then what I know now, Lee might be here. We might have known the right sort of things to say. I still have regrets about that day, I know we were doing the best we could with what we knew, but we know much more now.
“If you equip yourself, you can support that person at a time they might be at risk. That’s all we can do.”
As they plan for their futures, the family continue to honour Lee in various ways within their everyday lives. From the fragrances they all wear which connect them to Lee in some way; the sentimental items they carry with them as they go out into the world each day, and the tattoos they have which tell their family’s story, to published poems, the events they host, and a book that will one day be published paying tribute to both Penny and Lee.
As a further way on celebrating her brother’s life, Penny who is 18 months older than Lee, took official steps to name a star in the Auriga constellation after him. This itself has inspired many of their tributes to Lee, with their home entertainment space named Auriga Bar, which features a number of acknowledgements to Lee including an elephant sculpture – which is a personal reference within the family – and constellation décor.
Their next planned venture will hope to see them travel Europe in a camper van named Auriga Wheels, which will be decorated with a celestial theme and will allow the family to take Lee on all their adventures with them.
“We’re still a family of four, we still have two children. Penny, we hold in our arms, Lee we hold in our heart, and we like to think he still shines brightly.”
If you wish to make a donation to Lee’s Sunshine Fund, visit the JustGiving page, here.