Natasha Salman’s dad died in April and she was preparing for her first birthday without him when a glance at an old email inbox led to a thousand people sharing their stories of loss and compassion.
Salman Waheed died on 24 April after living for five years with motor neurone disease or ALS, a progressive neurological disease that affects the brain and nerves.
Natasha says she hoped her father would “visit” her in a dream in the run-up to her birthday in June and was disappointed when this did not happen.
The big day came and the 22-year-old medical student, feeling bored, decided to check an old overflowing email account.
In her inbox, between the spam emails from various shops, was a note from her father which she almost deleted until she saw the word “baba” – a Persian term for dad.
It read: “Happy birthday Dr Natasha, baba loves you, always.”
“He’d sent the email to an old email address and not my university one,” says Natasha.
Salman set the email reminder up in July 2017, two years after he was diagnosed with ALS. “He was probably thinking about his life expectancy when he did it,” she explains.
“The email made me so happy. I got my sisters to check their accounts and they’ve been getting them too. My friends told me that my dad’s email was amazing and so I put it on Twitter and the reaction to the tweet has been insane.”
Natasha’s tweet and the tale of her “perfect baba” has so far been liked more than 373,000 times and had 1,100 comments with people sharing their own stories of grief and comfort.
Mikayla Dannielle was one of the many to respond. She said: “I feel you. Last month was my birthday and I lost my dad last September. On my birthday he’s the first one who would kiss me and always said, ‘Work hard and be strong, girl’.
“I still miss him so much. I know it will pass. I just feel sorry that he won’t be there when I get married or see my kids. #virtualhugs for you.”
In response to messages like these, Natasha opened her DMs and started offering advice and support to those who said they had lost close relatives.
She said: “I wanted to respond to people who had lost their dads right away because I thought they might get lost in the comments.
“Hearing people’s stories has really helped me. My friends are the best but I can’t talk to them because they don’t know what I’m going through. People have messaged to say they have just had their first Father’s Day without their dad and I could say, ‘Me too’.
“Some say the hurt gets better with time, others think it doesn’t and you learn to live with it. There have been people who have told me their dad hasn’t died but they’ve lost touch with each other.
“I’ve said that even if you don’t have a good relationship, he still loves you and they tell me they’re going to repair it.
“It’s been heart-warming hearing all the stories.”
The way Salman’s email has resonated with so many people highlights the types of tangible reminders people often crave after the death of someone close, including emails, texts and voicemail messages.
“The death of someone doesn’t mean that a relationship ends, it changes,” says Jill Frampton, a grief recovery specialist in Staffordshire, UK.
“We as human beings can need those physical connections – seeing, hearing or smelling the person who has gone can help people feel safe as well as a sense of belonging.
“It can remind us that the person we have lost is still very much part of us as a living person.”
Andrea Chatten, an emotional and behavioural psychologist from Sheffield, says we do these things to “keep the love alive” after a relative has died.
“It’s called continuing bonds. When someone dies, even though they might not be there physically, actions like this are about keeping that connection with them.”
Natasha and her sisters Nayha and Soha cared for their dad after school and university as his disease progressed, first to his arms and hands and later to his neck and legs.
“After medical school the first thing we’d do is take our shoes off, run upstairs and he would ask about our day and would really be interested in what we’d learned,” says Natasha.
“I used to teach him anatomy and try and give him a headache as a joke. If I was massaging his leg I would name all the muscles as I went.”
Natasha says one of her dad’s hobbies was to “film everything” and she has taken to watching his old videos. She says they remind her of her baba’s voice before his speech became affected by the disease.
“ALS is the worst illness because you lose everything you loved to do,” explains Natasha.
“But he never let us get sad. Even when we were caring for him he made us feel like we were three princesses. He would make us laugh and it didn’t feel like we were looking after someone it just felt like we had lots of family time, especially during lockdown.
“My friends didn’t understand why I didn’t mind looking after him and I told them that if you loved your dad as much as I loved mine, you would understand why it wasn’t a chore. He was always smiling and laughing and I’m so glad he was like that because that meant we weren’t so sad.”