Jessica Dornan: I wish I could have had more time with mum, and this allows me to create a legacy for her
Ex-fashion designer Jessica Dornan says the heartbreak of her mother’s death has inspired the creation of a high-tech journal where everyone can preserve their loved one’s memories for future generations.
Nineteen years after she lost her mum Lorna to pancreatic cancer, Jessica Dornan and her dad, well known local medic Professor Jim Dornan, have created a lasting tribute which will also enable others to pay homage to their loved ones.
Afterbook.com is a unique new online platform which father and daughter hope will become a popular community hub where people can share memories of loved ones who they have lost.
The website will also enable people to go on and create a “living memory” of their own lives for their children, adding video footage and personal audio messages — something which Jessica dearly wishes she had from her mum.
Lorna did write a much treasured letter to Jess before she died and it is this which was part of the inspiration for Afterbook.
Jessica, who also has a sister Liesa (40) and, of course, a famous brother, Hollywood actor Jamie (35), has given up her career as a fashion designer to focus on developing Afterbook for which she has ambitious plans.She says she hopes it will be much more than a place to post special memories but act as a therapeutic tool for people who are grieving.
“Afterbook allows the user to build a legacy to, and tell the story of, a deceased loved one and creating an Afterbook profile is a cathartic and therapeutic activity, a form of digital therapy,” she says.
“We also hope to develop it into a community platform where people can go on and discuss any loss in their lives — be it a job, career or marriage breakdown. It is early days for us and we have lots of ideas for further developing the site.”
Jessica, who is married to Jonny Lynas (45), a pilot, and has two children, Delphine (8) and Francis (6), was just 17 when she lost her beautiful mum Lorna to pancreatic cancer aged 50.
It was a devastating loss which she says she has struggled with ever since. This year will mark the year when her mum has been gone longer than Jess knew her and it is this which has compelled her to give up her career in fashion design to work full-time on Afterbook.
“I have struggled since mum died and it has coloured my life ever since,” she says. “I am very conscious I want my children to know their nana Lorna as well. It is 19 years now and I really felt I wanted to honour her legacy.
“I think subconsciously why I’m doing it this year is because this marks the year mum has been gone longer than I knew her. I always thought of this year looming.
“I just wish I could have had more time with her and Afterbook has allowed me to create a legacy for her.
“Dad and I were having dinner a week before Christmas last year and we got talking with a glass of wine, and were sparking ideas off each other, as we quite often do.
“I wanted to do something to remember mum and he had a notion to create something which had come about for two reasons.
“Someone had given him video footage of mum singing at a christening 25 years ago and it struck him he would not have seen it had he not bumped into that person. It was very poignant and special and it got dad thinking about how people could create living memories for their loved ones.
“Mum wrote me a letter before she died. I loved that letter and in it she made predications for my life and most of them have come true. It was a brief letter and I yearned for more.
“Nineteen years ago there were no mobile phones and people didn’t video.
“Another thing which affected dad was when an old friend had contacted him to say he had done well in his career and wished he could share it with his dad, but his dad had died two years earlier.
“It made him think that people didn’t have anywhere to direct these sentiments and, although we like to talk about our loved ones, we have nowhere to direct it.”
The idea for Afterbook started to take hold and, when Jessica got some brand designers on board, she decided to give up her job in April to work full-time on developing the site.
She was also able to secure a Proof of Concept grant from Tech Start Northern Ireland and a place on the business accelerator programme, Entrepreneurial Spark, which has provided her with office space in Belfast city centre as well as access to workshops and business bootcamps.
She has also been working closely with the charities Marie Curie and Cruse Bereavement to make the site user-friendly.
The website has just gone live and it is hoped people will go onto it and register and provide feedback which Jess says will help them to make it even more accessible.
She says: “It has been a real journey. It’s like caring for a baby, you won’t necessarily release it into the world until it is totally perfect. But we have reached the stage when we need to get it out there and get feedback.
“We tested it with friends and family in July on the anniversary of mum’s death, giving our tribute to mum to 185 people who had known and loved her. The feedback was so lovely but we really need to get it out there.”
The site offers a simple sign-up process which takes just a couple of minutes to complete.
You then become the ‘gatekeeper’ of your own profile which you can create either about yourself as a legacy for your children or in tribute to a deceased loved one. Your profile can only be viewed by invitation from you.
The site also has a memory box facility where other people can leave specific memories or tributes to your loved one.
Jessica says: “The memory box is designed for people to go in and out of quite quickly, as we know people are time-limited these days.
“Then there is a chapters section where people can read longer chapters about the person’s life. The Gatekeeper creates the profile and shares it with others who can then add their own memories. My dad and my sister added to Mum’s.
“There is also a ‘light a candle’ feature where people can leave a condolence and, just like an email, you will get a message to let you know someone has left it.
“People can choose from a range of background pictures such as the night sky or a pebbled beach or a meadow and we will be adding to these as time goes on.
“Within about three minutes you can have quite a beautiful profile place.
“As well as creating a profile for a lost loved one we would like people to create one for themselves — the filtered and focused content of one’s life. Life is made up of a series of chapters, we would encourage people to write about their ‘Afterchapters’ as they’re experiencing them and leave a legacy for their loved ones for generations.
“We’ve always been encouraged to diarise or keep a journal and people don’t do it as much now but that’s what we hope it will do in a digital fashion.”
While Jess is CEO of the new venture, her dad is very much on board, supporting her every step of the way.
Professor Dornan, a well-known obstetrician and gynaecologist, says they have great ambitions for the website to become the new big global social media site.
“We really want to develop it as a community site and hopefully see a number of different platforms, for instance one where people can share mental health issues,” he says.
“This site can be somewhere people can visit and share memories and experiences so that people are revered forever.
“Lorna lived from 1948 to 1998 and for us it is about that dash in between and replacing that with a digital legacy.
“It is our ambition to make it the biggest digital library of genealogy, obituary and biographies in the world. Everyone has a legacy and this is a way of giving every man a chance to build a legacy.”
Reflecting on her mum, who was the inspiration for the website, Jessica paid her own personal tribute to her.
“Mum was ahead of her time in many ways. She was adopted in 1948 which was not uncommon in those days, especially in Ireland,” she says.
“Her parents were slightly older and she was brought up in a fairly strict household. She was a rebel and wanted to listen to rock ‘n’ roll music and go to art college. She did win a place there but her parents wanted her to do nursing, so she became a nurse.
“She was very artistic and was good at painting and dressmaking and interior design and other forms of art and I think that’s largely why I went to art college and studied fashion design. I obviously have the gene.
“She was fun-loving and loved a party and was always very glamorous. As a nurse she was known to put her lipstick on anywhere that was shiny, be that a scalpel or a bedpan.
“I know she was very proud of her children. She and Dad always gave us a long leash and always encouraged us to do whatever we wanted and try new things, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Focusing now on getting Afterbook out into the public domain, Jessica adds: “It is early days for us, we are still developing and listening to customers and making improvements. We want to begin a real movement to help people.
“It is new for me and I am negotiating the world of start-ups and entrepreneurialism daily. I am keen to connect with like-minded businesswomen and men and investors to really develop, grow and scale this important platform.”
Go to www.afterbook.com or follow on Facebook (Facebook.com/AfterbookLegacy/) and Instagram instagram.com/afterbooklegacy/)