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Jessica Dornan-Lynas on website Afterbook that keeps memories of loved ones alive

Jessica Dornan-Lynas, whose mother died when she was 19, created a website to enable people to share cherished memories of their loved ones. She explains to David O'Dornan how it's become a popular resource worldwide and where she's taking the venture next

Good cause: Jessica with her father, Professor Jim Dornan, and actor brother Jamie during the pancreatic cancer charity NIPanC launch at the Mater Hospital in Belfast
Good cause: Jessica with her father, Professor Jim Dornan, and actor brother Jamie during the pancreatic cancer charity NIPanC launch at the Mater Hospital in Belfast

By David O'Dornan

Jessica Dornan-Lynas will often pay an emotional visit to her late mum Lorna's grave, but it was on one such visit that it struck her that there was more to her mother's life than the dash between the date she was born and the day she sadly passed away.

That sparked a conversation among the family that launched the Dornans on a mission to not only keep Lorna's memory alive, but to create an online space where people across the world can share stories, images, videos and celebrate the lives of loved ones who are no longer with them.

Two years on from starting Afterbook, her business continues to grow and now she has ambitious plans to take it to a new level and is hoping that people will want to join her on the journey through a crowdfunding project.

For Jessica, it is important for her to have a place where her two children, Delphine (9) and seven-year-old Francis, can have a relationship with their Nana Lorna, even though she died long before they were born.

She says: "I actually quite enjoy going to visit my mum's grave and I read her headstone as 1948-1998, but it's the dash between those dates that I then want to teach my children more about.

"It's very important to me that they have a relationship of sorts with their Nana Lorna, in lieu of being actually able to have a relationship, so that's what I want to talk about, the stories of her life and keep her memory alive. I very much want to keep her as a part of our family because she's my mum."

And it is also an opportunity for Jessica and other members of her family - including her dad, well-known Professor Jim Dornan, her famous actor brother Jamie, himself now a father-of-three, and her sister Liesa - to remember her mum together.

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Jessica Dornan
Jessica Dornan

She explains: "It goes without saying that we are all quite disparate.

"My brother lives in England, I live here, my sister lives in London. We all live all over the world.

"And we often say, 'Oh let's just when we're next together spend the whole evening talking about mum and telling stories about her, but we often don't get the chance because we have busy lives, we all have kids and they're all running around and it's all a bit frenetic.

"So Afterbook allows us to do that and we all add to it and we all contribute to it. I'm the curator of my mum's site and anyone with whom you've shared the profile can add their own memories to the profile, there's a memory wall where people can do exactly that - and we all do that.

"You can keep the profile as private or as public as you like. I would share it with my family in a private WhatsApp group, but you can share it quite publicly on Facebook if you prefer. For me I can be in control of how much or how little I want to share on the site.

"I just think when we're all together we do talk about mum, but more importantly the legacy that she's left us is to make sure that we're all very close-knit and that we are together and all of our children are great friends and those family values are very important to us.

"Being a close and tight-knit family, the best that we can do for my mum is to remember her well and keep her memory alive and we definitely make sure to do that - and I'm definitely making sure to do that with the journey that I've been on for the last two years in the creation of Afterbook."

Jessica (40) lives in Crawfordsburn with husband Jonathan Lynas and their young family and she encourages her two children to engage in the website also - in fact, having the site adapted for young people is one of her future plans.

She knows only too well the challenges of coping with grief at a young age because she was just 19 when her mother died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 50.

Happy times: Jessica Dornan with her mum Lorna
Happy times: Jessica Dornan with her mum Lorna

"My children contribute to it through my profile and my account," she says. "And quite often my daughter will say, 'You know, I was just thinking about Nana Lorna today, she would have loved me horseriding at the weekend' or whatever it is, and she will log on with me and put her own little memory on the wall with my overseeing it obviously.

"That is something we'd like to explore in the future, children's versions of the profile, where maybe if the child has been bereaved there's a profile that's really easy to use and much more accessible for them to use and much more formatted to their needs.

"Again, we would need the fundraising to establish that.

"We've worked a lot with therapists and grief counsellors to talk about this idea of a memory jar and it's a very important tool used by people who work in grief therapy and bereavement therapy so that's how our memory wall exists.

"But we'd like to develop a platform that would be best used by a five to eight-year-old, by an eight to 12-year-old and then by a 12 to 16-year-old because life changes so rapidly in those years and one size fits all doesn't really work in childhood and adolescence.

"Personally, I'm way past the wake stage of my mum's own passing. This is just the way that you live with grief and there are said to be five stages of grief, but it's a total fallacy, there could be 105 stages of grief.

Jessica Dornan and her father Jim
Jessica Dornan and her father Jim

"And also, stages implies that there's a finish line - there is no finish line. There is a lovely quote that 'grief is just love with nowhere else to go' and it's true.

"I don't have my mum around any more but I do have the grief/love. It's very important that that's a huge part of my life and continues to be, and leading my own life and having children and getting married, that's when it comes up and rears its head again, so one never escapes it."

Some 18 months on from launching the live version of her website, Jessica has amassed more than 1,000 people from right across the world using her site, with the biggest markets being the United States and the UK and Ireland.

That she has overseen such growth without a marketing or advertising budget is all the more impressive, but now Jessica is reaching out with a crowdfunding initiative to help her fledgling business to continue to flourish.

She says: "To grow in scale as an international business you just have to fundraise and you have to bring on funds. That leads me to my final point of where I am. I've now decided, having looked at all the different funding options of angel investment and venture capital investment etc, I am launching a crowdfunding round.

"Because what I've really discovered in the last 18 months is that our 1,000 users that we do have are very passionate about our success and are about really helping us to establish ourselves and grow.

Jessica Dornan
Jessica Dornan

"And we have reached out to them a few times to see what they would like to see from the site and what they would like to have improved. We want to give them the opportunity to be fully involved in the site in ambassadorial roles, champion roles and fan roles and through the Indiegogo crowdfunding website, and they can do that now - they can be part of the future of Afterbook.

"At the moment the version of the platform that's available now and free of charge offers integration for text, video, audio and images."

Jessica continues: "What we want to do is have a premium pro-tier version of the site and this is where the crowdfunding comes in, and we would like to offer music integration and future messaging service and integrating with family trees. People's genealogy is becoming more important to them, when you think of that programme Who Do You Think You Are?

"This is a way of not just recording the facts and the statistics but the stories behind that. When you think of what happens at a funeral or a wake, in this part of the world that's what we're good at - we're good at storytelling and it often happens at a wake.

"And it's the fabric of our existence, story telling, it's the fabric of many cultures' existence. It's what we did from the year dot, gather around a fire and tell stories and that is what propels us forward.

"I originally founded Afterbook with my dad, although he's retired now and taking more of a back seat, so I'm really taking this by the reins and running with it.

"But we often talk about life being like a library and that there's a section for love and romance, and adventure and education and childhood and those are all the chapters of your life that you can curate and write about in an Afterbook profile.

"The forward facing target, and it's clear for everyone to see, is £50,000, but to really give us enough runway to build a team, we'd be looking to raise £250,000.

"Northern Ireland Pancreatic Cancer (NIPanC) are very much associated with Afterbook and with my family - my father is president and my brother (Jamie) is patron of that charity."

She adds: "We have three options that are known as perks in the crowdfunding world - number one is a one-year subscription to the pro-tier platform I've been talking about developing, number two is a five-year subscription and number three is a lifetime subscription.

"You can either take those perks with a donation to NIPanC or you can take them just as they are, whatever your preference is.

"And then there are other little perks - you become part of the Afterbook community, the Afterbook family, and you are given an Afterbook scented candle as a little thank you.

"The charity is doing really well but this crowdfunding campaign and any publicity that can come their way can only help them and their profile."

If you would like to contribute to the campaign and make a donation to NIPanC at the same time, please go to www.afterbook.com and follow the link to the Indiegogo website

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