Cath Hill.

The first time the Manchester Survivors Choir sang together – eight months on from the arena bombing in 2017 – it was very emotional. I remember thinking how beautiful we sounded. About 18 of us had come together at a church in the city to sing together – all of us had been impacted by the bombing. It felt very special, as though we were all connected. We were a varied group – there were people like me who had been there on the night and had tried (and failed) to get back on with normal life. Others had been injured or lost loved ones. Singing together felt a bit like mindfulness, something to focus on. It gave us all an opportunity to meet other people and feel as if we were doing something positive.

On 22 May 2017, I had taken my then 10-year-old son Jake to see Ariana Grande. It was his first concert, and it was fantastic. I didn’t hear the bomb go off – the suicide bomber detonated it in the main foyer area, and we were leaving by a different exit. I realised something was wrong when people started screaming and running. Even then, my mind didn’t go to a terrorist attack; people were saying maybe a speaker had exploded.

‘We just tried to get on with life’ … Cath Hill. Photograph: Courtesy of Cath Hill

I only realised something more serious had happened when I got to where we’d parked. We had to go past the area where the bomb had gone off and it was chaos. I just felt as if I needed to get my son away. On the drive home to Lancaster, we saw emergency vehicles pouring into Manchester. I was driving, but I could see lots of messages coming through on my phone. When Jake fell asleep, I turned the radio on to hear the news. I just felt devastated, it seemed incomprehensible. We were so incredibly lucky that we hadn’t been injured, or worse, but I just felt terrible – for me, the enormity of survivors’ guilt crept in quickly. All I could think about was that some children didn’t survive and yet I did.

I had been a social worker, and was doing a PhD in social work at Lancaster University, where I was also teaching. I went back to work, but I can remember standing in front of students and just not feeling as if I could put my thoughts properly in order. Jake went back to school. He didn’t want to go back the first day, and he was very anxious in case something happened again, but we just tried to get on with life.

Three months later, that August, we went on holiday to Cambrils, a coastal town outside Barcelona, Spain. While we were there, a terrorist drove into pedestrians in Barcelona, killing 13 people. In the early hours of the next morning, another attack took place in Cambrils – and a woman was stabbed to death. The attackers were shot and killed. After this, my sense of safety had completely gone. My anxiety became so difficult that I went to see my GP when I got home.

The doctor’s visit brought me into contact with support services that had been set up in Manchester after the bombing and I became a registered victim of the attack, which then enabled me to meet a network of other survivors. For me it was really useful, to find out how other people were coping and to feel as if I wasn’t alone with the situation.

Some people were talking about how their children, who had also been at the arena that night, weren’t engaging in the kind of activities that they’d done before, like singing and dancing classes. They had been at the concert because they loved music. So I suggested we start something ourselves, and it immediately became a collective thing.

We would meet twice a month, with a professional choir leader. Many of us had children and teenagers, and that cross-generational aspect was really important. Some people talked about what they were going through, but lots didn’t. We tended to focus as much as we could on singing, learning, having food together and just connecting.

The choir grew – at its peak, we had about 120 members – and we ended up singing at lots of events, including the concert for the anniversary. We had some particularly poignant moments, including singing for the family of Saffie Roussos, who died from injuries sustained in the attack. Some of the events were challenging for a lot of the young people, who were anxious about being indoors in music venues or anywhere too busy. It felt like we were working on confidence building and helping each other.

While the initial response to an atrocity or disaster is so important, people need help months and years afterwards, and sometimes that is what’s missing, especially for young people – it really struck me how they were such a marginalised group. This has now become my focus in my social work and research. Nine of the young women in the choir, some of whom had been physically injured in the attack, put themselves forward and we created a research project, Bee the Difference, to show some of the issues that young people faced accessing support, and to make recommendations to the Home Office.

Hill with research project members Bee the Difference. Photograph: Courtesy of Cath Hill

The choir is still going strong, although I decided to step back from it after the pandemic. The choir had given me a focus, and a chance to do something positive. I had always really struggled with the fact that I didn’t help on the night – not with medical aid, but I knew there were young people who were traumatised and separated from their parents, and I didn’t stay in the city to help. Connecting with other survivors led me to realise that I could be proactive months afterwards, and offer support and help in a way that I didn’t on the night.

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