"Noone will go through something like that and it not change them." Lancashire's McNeil family on life after the Arena bombing.

Rebuilding lives scarred by the Manchester Arena tragedy was always going to be a challenge. But the McNeil family of Catterall, near Garstang told Fiona Finch how they have survived and thrived despite the worst of times.

Saturday, 29th May 2021, 12:30 pm

It is four years since The Manchester Arena bombing.

Annette McNeil had taken her two young daughters Caitlin and Erin, then aged 14 and 11, to see the Ariana Grande concert that night. Although they were fortunate to escape physical injury - they were still in the hall when the suicide bomber detonated his home made device, the aftermath of the attack was to bring many challenges.

It has also brought healing. But it has been a testing journey.

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Annette and Erin McNeil (Photo: Kelvin Stuttard)

Today Annette says she is proud of how far her girls have come. She said: "The anniversary on Saturday (May 22) was hard. I think it will always be hard. There are certainly things you see and hear that do still bring it back. But I think we are in a really good place. I do think one of the big things we learned is you just have to embrace life and follow your dreams and what you love ... it's about seizing the day and seizing opportunities."

The three returned to the arena before it reopened after the attack at the invitation of charity Survivors Against Terror and for the We Are Manchester concert a year after the event. They have been to several concerts there since, viewing it as part of their recovery journey and a reclaiming of normal life.

Annette said: "That was Caitlin's way of recovering really. It was almost an act of defiance. She didn't want what had happened to stop her enjoying life. Obviously I didn't want to let her go on her own. We've probably been to five or six concerts since.

"It was really, really difficult at first for Erin to go back to the arena. I would always buy three tickets and say you can change you mind, even on the day...It was really hard getting her to go in at first - we always let her choose how she wanted to go in, where she wanted to eat and make it as easy as possible. "

Caitlin McNeil (Photo: Michelle Adamson)

Most recently the three returned to an empty Arena for a BBC podcast, The Manchester Arena Bomb - Stories of Hope. In the second episode 'Beyond The Door' ( now available on BBC Sounds) they each read out letter they were asked to write to their selves of four years ago.

Reading the letters was a powerful experience for all three, the girls in particular recognising how much their mum had gone through too.They each reacted differently to the trauma, Erin refusing to discuss what she had seen and Caitlin trying to carry on regardless.

One by one all three benefited from counselling.

Erin had turned her head when leaving the Arena and witnessed the aftermath of the bombing. Determined not to discuss it, it was only after watching an episode of TV drama Holby City which featured someone suffering from post traumatic stress she told her mum: "I feel like that."

Annette, Caitlin and Erin McNeil pictured in 2018

The Garstang Academy student and accomplished swimmer said: "I really struggled with sleeping and stuff ... I feel like I'm definitely back to normal if not better now because so many good things have come out of a not very nice experience. I got a lot of help."

She said she still incorporates tips her counsellor gave her years ago to cope with demanding situations.Troubled by fears and scared of going into crowds ,with the help of her counsellor she learned how to rebuild her confidence and acknowledge and deal with, but also box off concerns.

Erin was counselled some eight months after the attack, her mum a year after and Caitlin around 14 months afterwards.

Annette praise the support they received from the NHS Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), the Foundation for Peace and Victim Support.

Caitlin recalled how she felt in that year: "I was just like numb. It's quite common. I got to the point afterwards I didn't really feel anything...If I would be nasty to my mum I would be conscious of that and my brain would be well what (does ) it matter...I just didn't have emotions. I think that was going on for quite a while and I didn't really understand why I was like that. Me and my family are really close now, especially with my mum. I think it has brought us closer together. I could never, ever be like that with my mum again."

Annette said she read "loads about the impact of trauma and signs to look out for", noting: "I think it was particularly hard for me that I had two girls who were going through similar things but in very, very different ways. Caitlin, she almost blocked it out for a long time and I always knew it was going to come out somehow and it was just a waiting game."

She added: "You try and be strong to help and support the girls and at some point it all catches up with you. My experience was you can only do that for so long.I've learned you've got to look after you if you're going to take care of somebody else. It's the thing about putting your own life jacket on...We are all so much closer because of it and we all understand each other better, even though we all had different reactions and different ways of coping."

Annette knew she needed support when found herself being "really irritable" about the tiniest of things such as the dog barking and catastrophising: "I recognised probably about 18 months after it happened I just got to the point I couldn't cope with the tiniest things because my bucket was full...I would always worry about the girls, telescoping, catastrophising. I would always worry that the worst thing would happen."

She said: "It's really given us strength and resilience. We've all learned how to help each other. Somebody really wise said to me after the bombing. Noone will go through something like that and it not change them...You don't come out unscathed."

Following the attack the family featured in a TV documentary and Erin was photographed in a related "After The Attack" project. Her picture by Richard Ansett was one of just 57 works selected for exhibition from over 4,400 entries in the prestigious Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize.

The family, including dad Mal, travelled to the National Portrait Gallery to view the exhibition unaware this was to lead to a passion for photography for Caitlin, who now hopes to take a degree in the subject after taking photography as one of her A'levels at Cardinal Newman College in Preston, along with maths and fine art.

She said: "The photo of my sister in a gallery - it just kind of inspired me. I took photography as an A'level and I fell in love with it. I didn't know I was this good at anything."

Erin meanwhile has ambitions to be a dancer or model, having modelled for Caitlin's A' level projects during lockdown.

Erin, 15, said: Looking back it's really weird. It all seems like it was all one big bad dream. It's quite strange really ...we've all come a long way."

Caitlin, 18, said: "Now I can pay my respects without feeling so upset and sad and angry about it. It's been a healing process. I'm a lot more healed than I was. "

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