13th October 2021
Figen Murray on how forgiving her son’s killer has preserved her humanity
Marina Cantacuzino talks to Figen Murray about what forgiveness means in the context of losing a child in a terrorist attack. In May 2017 her son, Martyn Hett, was killed at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester when a radical Islamist detonated a homemade bomb. Since then Figen has become an active campaigner and activist in counter-terrorism.
For over 23 years, Figen worked as a counsellor, a life coach and offered clinical supervision to other counsellors too. Her son, Martyn Hett, was one of the 22 people killed in the devastating Manchester Arena bombing attack. Figen made it her mission to promote peace and positive change in Martyn’s name. By visiting schools, universities and conferences, she is dedicated to helping stop attacks like the Manchester Arena one from happening in the future. Figen is also the force behind Martyn’s Law, a legislation requiring entertainment venues to improve security against the threat of terrorism, and one that requires that all venues in the city have a counter-terrorism plan. To learn more, visit figenmurray.co.uk.
“…forgiveness is really important to me for various reasons, really. First of all it helps me not to tap into anger and darkness in my heart. It keeps me in a state where I can still function as a mother, as a grandmother, as a wife, as a friend, a sister, whatever role I play in other people’s lives.”
“Forgiveness has given me inner peace because it helped me to stay within my own humanity.”
“I didn’t want my children to lose ‘their mother’ as well as their brother.”
“…forgiving helped me literally stay level-headed.”
“…Martyn was always so kind and caring, I want to carry his message on of kindness and tolerance. He wouldn’t want me to hate…”
“I feel that forgiveness for me helps me just function day by day…”
“Terrorism is not an act against individuals. It is an act against governments and regimes and organisations. It’s not a crime against individuals but individuals are used as a means to make the point.”
Marina: Welcome to the F Word – a podcast series that examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through.
Each episode I will be talking to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.
My guest in this episode of the F Word Podcast is Figen Murray who in her 20’s came to the UK from Germany to find a new adventure. For over 23 years Figen worked as a counsellor and a life coach with a passion for listening to people’s stories. She is also the mother of five children and a grandmother.
But, on the 22nd May 2017 Figen’s life changed for ever when her son, Martyn Hett, was one of the 22 people killed in the devastating Manchester Arena’s suicide bomb when a radical Islamist detonated a shrapnel laden homemade bomb as people were leaving the Ariana Grande concert.
While you might assume Figen to be destroyed and enraged by what happened to Martyn, actually right from the beginning she was defiant in her message that hate only further fuels hate and that being angry could only cause more heartache.
Well, Figen, welcome to you. Thank you so much for coming on to the F Word Podcast to talk to me.
Figen: Thank you.
Marina: I want to start with Martyn. I remember so well the Manchester Arena attack and it was horrifying in every way and not least because the target was a concert with children and young people in the audience. I also remember Martin’s face early on in the newspapers as it was revealed by the press that he was one of the victims and thinking what an interesting and open-spirited person he looked.
So, could we start by you speaking a little bit about Martyn, Figen?
Figen: Yes, I think open-spirited is a really good description for Martyn. He had a big heart. He was fun-loving. He was kind and caring. Always looked after the under-dog. He was just one of those people who could turn a bad situation into a good one just with his personality and his outgoing way of being with people.
Marina: And, was he living at home at the time, Figen?
Figen: No. We owned a flat about a mile and a half away from our house and he lived there.
Marina: So, on that night in May 2017, I presume he went to the concert because he was an Ariana Grande fan. Can you say a little bit about what happened that night and how you found out?
Figen: Yes. So he was a big pop music fan. So, it was that particular week he was actually meant to go to America on a two-month trip on his own. He was so excited so he took the Monday and Tuesday off work and just was in a very relaxed state, enjoying the sunshine that day with his friends. A lot of them joined him to go to the concert together.
Marina: And you probably thought nothing much of it?
Figen: To be honest I didn’t even know he had gone to the concert. I thought he was at home getting ready for his trip.
Marina: So how did you hear about it?
Figen: I didn’t feel very well that day. I wasn’t ill but I was a bit off-colour so I went to bed at 10.00 o’clock. And, about quarter to eleven one of my daughters came in my bedroom and woke me up because she was messing with my phone. She was looking to see if Martyn had texted or tried to phone me and then I asked her why that would be the case. She then told me that he and his friends went to a pop concert at the Arena and there had been an incidence and they are all out but they can’t find Martyn and they are frantically looking for him. That was the first I knew about it.
Marina: And you put on the news?
Figen: Absolutely. Then I further enquired what happened. She sort of very reluctantly said, “Mum, there’s been an explosion” and by her saying “explosion” I just literally flew down the stairs. My husband was stood by the television just watching the newsflash and I said, “Martyn is there and his mates are out but they can’t find him. I hope he is OK”. My husband just simply said, “Look you know what he is like. He is always chaotic. He obviously leaves concerts early. Don’t worry he will be somewhere in the Gay Village ordering drinks for his mates” and he went to bed because he had work to do the day after.
Marina: And then, how was the terrible news confirmed to you?
Figen: Yes. So my daughter and I obviously couldn’t sleep. We made a cup of tea and kept watching the news and both our phones were going frantically because his friends were literally going from hospital to hospital at that point. Obviously, I realised in the news that I saw on TV the extent of what happened.
And, sort of less than an hour after the attack, so, the attack had happened at 22.31 so about quarter past 11, I just turned round to my daughter, Louise, and said, “Look, he is dead” and she was horrified and said, “Why on earth would you say that, mum?“ So, I literally felt as if somebody had cut off my connection with him. He just literally felt he wasn’t on the planet anymore, if I am honest.
Marina: Oh, I am sorry to hear that and did you know because your instinct as a mother was just suddenly really present and powerful, somehow?
Figen: My connection with him, in particular out of all my children, was very, very strong because he was one of those children who always had some kind of problem that he needed rescuing from and he always called me Soya. I had a strong bond with him.
Marina: And so, once it was confirmed, Figen, that he had died, I wonder how you dealt with the immediate aftershock of the next few days. What kind of support did you receive and were you able to be strong for the sake of your other children or were they strong for you and your husband, or, in fact probably much more likely, did everyone kind of collapse,
Figen: Actually, nobody did collapse. I knew that I was convinced on the night of the attack that he died so being told 24 hours later, at twenty to ten in the evening, it didn’t come as a surprise. I was more concerned about looking at my other children and see how they respond and how my husband reacts and I just comforted any of the kids that I could do.
They obviously cried but you know my youngest daughter was 16 at the time and actually the day after we were told, the attack happened on the Monday and we were told Tuesday evening and stayed up until about 3.00/4.00 o’clock in the morning, obviously all trying to sort of come to terms with it. Then the following day my 16-year-old daughter came down in her school uniform. She was in the middle of her GCSE’s. She had only just sat two of the exams up to that point and she said, “Mum, I want to go and sit my exams”. She didn’t have to because school had told us under the circumstances that they would take her prescriptive grades, but she ended up sitting all of them and managed somehow to get 11 A*. It seems like she used her grief and processed it by throwing herself into her exams, literally.
Marina: Yes. And, what about friends and family? How did they react and support you at the time?
Figen: So, my two siblings, also live in Germany. They came the day after the attack as soon as they heard. Parents-in-law came from Lincolnshire. I had lots of friends who popped round and checked if we are OK. The neighbours, the general public in the village we lived in, they were absolutely phenomenal. Support was just incredible.
The love we received was just absolutely astounding. Strangers would drop off food on the doorstep and flowers and cards. It was just incredible. The police family liaison officers were incredibly supportive and looked after us really well. We felt really protected actually by them. So, yes, and obviously that close support lasted for two to three weeks and then eventually, things became sort of quieter.
Marina: Very early on, I understand, you started to speak about forgiveness and I just wondered how that came into your journey of recovery and healing. I mean, it was I think really early after Martyn was killed. It seems extraordinary.
Figen: Now, two things happened. So, on day three I saw a newspaper clipping. We obviously didn’t watch the news because it was all over the news, constantly, so the TV was off, the radio was off. However, somebody kept buying newspapers and putting them on a pile in my dining room on the table.
I happened to walk past on day three and froze on the spot because I saw a photo on the front page of the perpetrator and I realised how young he was. He was only 22 and I read it. I didn’t know anything about terrorism obviously at that point. I didn’t understand why somebody so young would throw away their own life and kill so many people, especially children, at the same time. So, that made me ponder.
However about two and a half weeks after the Arena attack I suddenly one morning found myself all on my own. Everybody had gone back to school and work and uni, etc. and I went and bought The Guardian newspaper. As I was about to sit down with a coffee and my breakfast, I saw on the front cover this picture of some men linking arms and a man on the floor and it was the description of the Finsbury Mosque attack in London.
This picture depicted five men from the Mosque, one of them, the Iman, and 4 other people from the Mosque, forming a human chain around the guy who tried to attack Muslims as they came out of prayers. He tried to run and tripped over, I think, and fell and obviously there were a lot of angry people trying to get to him. These five men in all that chaos, in all that confusion and terror, really, they decided to without having to communicate much or having time to do that, they linked arms and protected him.
That picture stayed with me all day and I pondered and pondered and then I thought of the picture of the terrorist at the Arena attack. By the time my husband came home I said to him, “I am going to go on national TV and I want to publicly forgive this guy. I think it is wrong to hate and I think it is wrong to get angry. I just feel I need to forgive him. It is just something I feel very strongly about”. And, that is how it came about.
Marina: I think the speed with which Figen came to a place of forgiving is very unusual but actually using forgiveness as a way to stop the cycle of hatred and violence is far from unusual.
Only very recently I heard the English footballer, Ian Wright, talking about forgiving his mother for the emotional and physical abuse he received from her as a child. He explained that his mother had also been the victim of domestic abuse but she hadn’t been able to deal with it and, therefore had passed it down to him. He said that he realised that he had to find forgiveness within himself because as he said, “I’ve got to move on for my own kids. I have got to try and make sure that they are OK.”
In terms of forgiveness, Figen, can you just say a little bit more about what it means to you and why it’s been so useful for you.
Figen: So forgiveness is really important to me for various reasons, really. First of all it helps me not to tap into anger and darkness in my heart. It keeps me in a state where I can still function as a mother, as a grandmother, as a wife, as a friend, a sister, whatever role I play in other people’s lives. Forgiveness has given me inner peace because it helped me to stay within my own humanity.
I have always been a really peace loving person and hopefully, kind person if people were to describe me and the thought of me becoming an angry and bitter and resentful person just doesn’t fit right anyway. So, forgiving was the vehicle I used to stay within my own humanity really.
And, also, I feel that the world lacks compassion full stop and kindness and tolerance and I feel forgiveness is one of those values in life that are really lacking. I so wish more people were able to do that. The world would be in better shape, I think.
Marina: Can I also just ask you what you think the cost is of not being able to forgive and what would have happened to you if you hadn’t been able to.
Figen: Yes. I think had I not forgiven I could have become a very bitter person and depressed, probably, quite clinically depressed, I would have become. You know I may have turned to alcohol. Who knows? I would have had to be on medication.
But, actually forgiving helped me literally stay level-headed. It doesn’t mean I am not in bits about Martyn. I am absolutely in bits but I do bear bits very privately, that grieving bit. I feel the forgiveness for me helps me just function day by day and as I said, it is really important to me that I still manage to function in all my other roles that I play in life. I didn’t want my children to lose “their mother” as well as their brother. I hear of some people who have lost children and some of them say to me, “well the day such and such died we lost our mother as well”. I didn’t want to be that person.
But, also as I said, I feel that the world lacks kindness and forgiveness and therefore, it inspired me and also based on the fact that Martyn was always so kind and caring, I want to carry his message on of kindness and tolerance. He wouldn’t want me to hate, possibly, to do the opposite which is what I am exactly doing now. I go and try and spread peace and love and kindness that I can.
Marina: That seems like an incredibly positive and meaningful thing to be doing.
You mentioned the suicide bomber before, Salman Abedi, the same age as your son, I believe. Do you have some compassion for someone drawn into Islamist extremism like that in the way that someone can become convinced somehow that they are doing the right thing, even by killing children? Can you understand that? It’s almost incomprehensible I would say and yet these people aren’t necessarily monsters. They have loving families. They are capable of doing good in the world.
Always understanding not what’s important here is it more about finding a connection on a human level, sort of seeing that this was a broken human being who did a terrible deed.
Figen: I think obviously until the attack happened, I knew nothing, absolutely zero, about terrorism it was just something that naively I thought happens on television, on the news, in crime films to other people, but not somewhere in England in a peace-loving city, but obviously I was wrong.
However, since then I really try to understand why terrorism is even such a thing to the point where I am actually now in the process of completing a two-year Master’s in counter-terrorism. I had this really strong need to try and understand terrorism and why these people do these things.
And, then you said broken person. I don’t think the terrorist was a broken mind but I think he was somebody who was completely and utterly radicalised. The real perpetrators are not the terrorists who carry out these acts they are just used by the ideal ology really behind it and the big machinery behind it. I feel that people are radicalised to the point where they are so convinced that what they do is right.
And, I am sure that this terrorist at the Arena attack was no different. I am absolutely certain that when Salman Abedi walked into that room with his rucksack full of explosives, he was convinced in his own head that he’s doing the right thing and he is carrying out his duty and that he will go on to a better place. I am sure he was convinced of that. Obviously, he is wrong but there you go.
Marina: And, I suppose it helps that those committing these acts of such extreme violence have absolutely no idea who they are going to kill in that their target is faceless, nameless, completely de-humanised.
Figen: Yes. I mean terrorists don’t really single anyone out and think, OK there’s Martyn and I am going to kill him or Dave or whoever, I am going to kill that person. He went in. He didn’t care who he killed. It was just to make a statement.
Terrorism is not an act against individuals. It is an act against governments and regimes and organisations. It’s not a crime against individuals but individuals are used as a means to make the point. So, Martyn and the others got caught up in a terrorist attack that was aimed at the UK government, I guess.
Marina: You will know, of course, of the attack on Fishmonger’s Hall in November 2019 when Usman Khan, who had been invited as a trusted participant to this Conference about Prison Education, killed two people who he knew and who had over the months been trying to help him. And that I found this particularly horrifying in a way. There was just something so cold and callous.
I think it’s unusual, isn’t it, for terrorists to kill those they know in that I suppose it is harder to kill someone who has been humanised through friendship. So, I wondered how unusual is it that particular attack was.
Figen: I mean, Fishmonger was quite extreme because he did in fact meet both many times and had lots of casual conversations with them so I believe but ultimately, the intention of this guy who killed those poor young people, he again aimed his attack at the government, the actual motives are the same.
It is just so sad that he decided to kill two people he knew. But, terrorists have one aim and that is to destroy, to cause division, to cause chaos and to cause racial division, prejudice, anything like that, they try and ultimately damage the fabric that our country is built on, really.
Marina: So, I just want to come in here because in another interview, Figen said something very interesting which I think adds context. She was talking about how someone had once asked her if she was blaming herself for her son’s death and her answer was revealing.
She said, “No she wasn’t” but she said and I am quoting her directly here, she said, “I know that by me being part of society I have been part of the society that created monsters”.
I actually think this is where forgiveness lies in the sense of being connected with all of society and not feeling separate from that which is monstrous. So, when terrible things happen, we take responsibility for being part of a society that has created such things and not resort just to blame and judgement or othering.
Can we just return to forgiveness? You have spoken in public about your position, I know and I was just wondering what the reaction has been from your family and also, specifically, from other families who lost loved ones in the Manchester Arena bombing.
Figen: I have no idea how the other families feel about me forgiving because I have been very public. None of them really speak to me about it but I do know that the general public, on the whole, a lot of people tweeted afterwards when I went on national TV and they couldn’t understand. I got trolled, initially, quite badly, but that’s fine. I wasn’t offended that I got trolled I just literally made that decision to forgive very conscientiously. I thought about it very deep and hard and long but I know for me personally it was the right decision to make.
My own family. So, one of my daughters is engaged to a young man and he and his family were very angry when it happened and they were a bit upset with me that I am so blasé about it. Of course, what they see as blasé wasn’t blasé at all if was just me having thought it through and decided to do that and I had my reasons for forgiving. But years on, talking to them now, they understand now much clearer where I am coming from. They were just very upset at the beginning. Their views have changed now.
My own family members. I have raised my family not to be prejudiced and intolerant and I have raised them to be kind people and certainly, my family themselves feel, not forgiving, but they are not angry.
Marina: How has this whole journey of grief and loss changed you?
Figen: It has changed me completely as a person in a way because obviously I was a psychotherapist for 23 years. I lost my job that day because I can’t ethically justify working with people now because a small part of me may not be very understanding for minor issues people may bring and I don’t want to do them an injustice. So the right step for me was to step down from my profession.
However, since then I have made it my goal to speak to young people, especially given the young age of the guy who did the Arena attack. I just felt that young people are so in danger of becoming radicalised, online in particular, because I know that terrorist recruiters target young people and I ultimately don’t care how many years I do it.
I will just be very relieved if one school approached me afterwards and said, “After your talk one child approached us. They were in the process of being radicalised and it stopped them” and that for me would be success because the Arena was carried out by one person. And, if I can stop one person to go down a dark route then that will have been the right thing for me to do.
Marina: So that in a way is about making meaning, isn’t it which is such an important part of recovery. And it is not to say, of course, that you can make sense out of what happened because what happened is totally senseless, but it is about somehow pursuing what really matters to you and that allows you to put meaning back into your life.
Figen: Yes, not just that but I don’t want Martyn to have died for nothing. I am convinced that he would hate me to be passive and sitting at home being depressed and crying and grieving in the most horrendous way. He knows I am grieving. He knows I miss him dreadfully but he also knows that I, as his mum, will do whatever I can to try and avoid that happening to other families.
Marina: And, Figen, I am sure you wish every day that this had never happened to Martyn but has anything unexpected or even beautiful come out of such pain?
Figen: Well, I have met lots of people in the meantime, people who have been injured, people who have been affected in some way at the Arena attack, other people who have lost loved ones.
And, I have also sort of initiated “Martyn’s Law” which is something that is really important to me now. At the moment it is going through public consultation until the 2nd July and then, hopefully, the government will evaluate the results and take it to parliament for a decision.
“Martyn’s Law” is a piece of suggested legislation to make it mandatory for public venues to have to have security in place because, would you believe it up to now, it is actually only a recommendation and I find that absolutely shocking. So, I want venues to be responsible for their customers and make sure they are secure and safe.
Marina: So you have become an activist as well, on top of everything else.
Figen: Bizarrely, yes. At the age of 60 I would not have thought that I would go back to university and study a Master’s in counter-terrorism. In fact I had not been to university before, so even that is weird to me.
And, the other thing is that I have become an activist and I sit in Ministers’ offices and have a discussion about a law I am hoping to introduce. So, I have to say Martyn and his sense of humour, it would really appeal to him that he would find it all very amusing what I am doing.
Marina: I think that is lovely. We started off talking about Martyn and so, perhaps, we should end this conversation with what you have just said there about Martyn.
I would to thank you so much, Figen, for sparing the time today and for talking to me on the F Word Podcast.
Figen: Thank you.
Marina: Thank you for listening to the F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest of situations.
I also want to invite you to join the F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast.
But, most of all, I hope you will join me again.