Brave Freya Lewis, 17, attended the Ariana Grande concert three years ago, on 22 May 2017. She went with her best friend, Nell Jones, who very sadly didn’t survive the attack. This is her experience of grieving, trauma and recovery.
As soon as I opened the envelope that Christmas morning, in December 2016, I knew exactly who I wanted to take with me. My parents had gifted me two tickets to see Ariana Grande at Manchester Arena on 22 May the following year – it was the first concert I’d ever been allowed to go to without them tagging along – and I knew my best friend, Nell, was a huge fan. In fact, she’d tried and failed to get tickets herself.
I slipped them back inside the envelope, hugged my parents and smiled, deciding to save telling Nell until her birthday in April. Seeing live music had long been one of my favourite pastimes; my older sister Georgia and I would joke that we could never truly judge how good an artist was until we’d watched them perform in the flesh.
Nell and I met on our second day of high school and instantly formed a tight bond over our love of drama lessons, make-up and singing in a choir, Young Voices, together. Typical teenage interests. We were more than best friends, she felt like another sister to me, always there to hold my hand whenever other friendships got rocky – as they often do when you’re a fourteen-year-old girl. We’d FaceTime one another for hours from our respective bedrooms in Holmes Chapel, the small Cheshire village we both lived in.
When the day finally arrived that I could reveal all to Nell, I found myself fidgeting in my chair during our Spanish lesson. Little rushes of pride zipped through me, knowing how happy I was about to make her. When, after class, I eventually handed over the card (that I’d decorated with pictures of our shared idol), she screamed so loudly that a teacher came running over to check we were okay. We were more than okay – Nell was delighted and 22 May became a much-anticipated date on our calendars.
On the Monday of the concert, we both struggled to concentrate on schoolwork. As soon as the bell sounded, Nell and I headed to mine to get ready together. She painstakingly curled my hair and did my make-up with military precision, she just had a special way of making you feel cared for. On the car journey to Manchester Arena, we had Ariana songs turned up the entire way, shrieking along so loudly that my dad joked we’d have no voices left by the time we reached the venue.
Our favourite song of hers was one called Touch It and every time Ariana sang the words “touch it”, Nell would lean across the backseat and poke me, causing us to both dissolve with laughter. It was one of those jokes that we’d carried around for a while, one that nobody else really found funny, but to us was unfailingly hilarious.
That night was Nell's first ever gig, and I felt excited at the prospect of showing off my concert knowledge a little. For once I was the expert, knowing things like how long the interval would last and pointing out backing dancers to look at. We danced, sang and laughed through the entire performance.
As Ariana launched into her last song, Dangerous Woman, I told Nell that we’d need to leave before it ended to beat the crowd. My dad had said he’d pick us up and would wait in the car park outside. So, a couple of minutes before 10.30pm, we made our way out to the lobby.
Standing there in the foyer, I watched as my beautiful, smart and caring best friend headed over to a bin to throw her cup away, then got out my phone out of my bag to text my dad. Nell came back, smiling, and said, “This has been the best night of my life – love you, Freya!” I told her I loved her too. Then I pressed ‘send’ on my text and everything went black.
"My entire life changed in a millisecond"
I didn’t realise it at first, but I’d been caught up in one of the most prolific terrorist attacks that the country has ever seen, leaving 22 dead and 119 people injured. When I came around days later, I found myself lying in a hospital bed, staring up at the ceiling, confused as to why I couldn’t move my body.
Everything felt strange, all my limbs heavy. I’d been in an induced coma. I strained my eyes to one side, my neck rigid, and saw my dad with a sunken face, speaking to a nurse. The first thing I asked was, “What happened?”
I watched as my dad’s mouth twisted into a shape I’d only seen once before, when we'd had a family bereavement, and listened as he told me there’d been an attack on the arena.
The second thing I asked was, “Where’s Nell?”
My dad took hold of my hand.
“Nell has died, Freya,” he told me, his eyes filling up.
I couldn't compute it, I just lay there for hours, still staring at the ceiling, unable to understand. I replayed fragments of memory in my head. An ambulance. Singing at the concert, how happy we'd been. It was all scrambled.
Later that day Nell’s mum dropped off one of her old cuddly toys, a little stuffed owl, which smelled of Nell’s favourite Victoria’s Secret body spray. Somebody tucked it under my hospital blanket and I kept it there for the entire five and a half weeks I spent at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, breathing in her scent for comfort.
As well as having a part of my heart ripped out over Nell’s death, I had serious physical injuries to contend with too. Both my legs were broken, shrapnel had invaded my entire body, even embedded into one of my eyes, and my left arm had metal rods sticking out of it as part of the bone was missing.
I lay on my back staring at the same ceiling, feeling distraught, numb, overwhelmed. I had multiple major surgeries in quick succession. My lowest point came about three weeks in, while waiting in the burns unit with my parents, who’d barely left my side since the attack. “I feel like my life has been snatched away,” I told them. “I feel so angry.”
They listened, talked me through every single emotion, and my mum encouraged me to keep my focus on the future. I decided not to watch or read any of the media coverage surrounding the attack, as it would be too painful.
“Feeling angry won’t do you any good in life,” my mum said, in a soothing voice, although I knew she was angry and suffering too. My entire family were. “Don’t let them take your happiness away, it’s what they want.”
There were small glimmers of good during those early weeks; Ariana came to see me and the other survivors, and I cried on her shoulder as she signed my notebook – that piece of paper is now framed and on display in my bedroom. My sister also arranged for Harry Styles to call me – all I can remember of our conversation is telling him I loved him and him saying it back. The rest is a blur.
Generally, though, my hospital stay felt as though it dragged on for years and I worried about how my friends would react when I had to go back into the ‘real world’. I didn’t want anybody walking on egg shells around me. I decided to only have “grown-up visitors”, like my drama teacher. The nurses were such an incredible support and encouraged me to talk, any time I needed.
Eventually, after five and a half weeks, I was able to return home, but I still had regular physio and medical appointments. I was wheelchair-bound for three months and used the time to begin processing everything I’d been through. In hospital I was assigned two psychiatrists, but I decided not to go for formal therapy. My family have been my therapists.
By September of that year, just four months after the attack, I was ready to go back to school. Although my body was fragile (and my mum panicked about me being crushed in the corridors), I needed to feel normal again. I worried that people would stare at first and of course they did. But I knew being back with my friends, Amy and Elliott, who knew Nell too, was the right thing. I felt a kick in my stomach whenever I passed a classroom that we’d had a lesson in together. In my head I imagined texting her and what she might reply with, and I read through all our real texts time and time again. She was never far from my thoughts.
I had good and bad days, as I healed. Reading a book before a lesson one day – and realising it was about a woman who’d lost her best friend, before remembering that Nell had read the novel too – caught me off guard. I struggled to keep it together and as soon as I got home, I sobbed on my mum, then listened to one of my ‘sad playlists’ to get the rest of the tears out. My experience hasn’t put me off music or live shows at all, I’m still just as obsessed as I was before. I even went to a Harry Styles gig shortly after leaving hospital. Music is healing and empowering.
When I became stronger, I knew I wanted to give something back to the hospital that had saved my life and to thank the nurses who’d cared for me so tenderly. My dad and I signed up for fundraising runs, raising over £60,000. I’ve also recently written a book, What Makes Us Stronger, with the help of a ghost-writer, Amisha Desai. It was difficult reliving all that’s happened and my long road to recovery, but it was hugely therapeutic too. It’s dedicated to Nell.
Last July I had my final surgery, to correct a curvature that had developed in my spine, and although in a lot of ways I’ve accepted that my body looks different now (these days I’m happy to wear shorts that show the scars on my legs), it’s still an ongoing process. I’m not yet comfortable with going out without make-up, to cover the marks on my face. But my resilience is steely. I’m at college, with hopes of becoming an actress one day, and I'm looking forward to everything life has to offer.
This year, on the third anniversary of the night that changed my life, I’ll take a trip to Manchester with my family and walk our dog, and think about how far we’ve all come. It’s such a special city and the way people banded together after the attack was phenomenal. Holmes Chapel, my small village, has been such a supportive unit for me to return to, too.
This awful experience has shown me the power of community and self-belief. I’ve got through things I never even imagined possible when I was that fourteen-year-old girl, singing at the top of her lungs in the car, on her way to an Ariana Grande concert. It’s taught me to appreciate small things, like signing off texts with ‘love you’, and doing what makes me happy. Every single one of us is so much stronger than we could ever know.
What Makes Us Stronger by Freya Lewis is out now in hardback (published by Seven Dials).
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