Remembering the Loved and Lost with Memsta

By Olivia O'Mahony 6 Min Read

Inspired by the journey of web developer Shelagh Mullaney, memory-sharing application Memsta allows users to pay homage to loved ones who have passed.

Over the course of 10 short weeks in 2016, the very stars from the sky of web developer Shelagh Mullaney seemed to come crashing down around her. Her mother’s diagnosis with stage four advanced lung cancer was an unspeakable blow for the family, and nothing could have prepared them for the speed at which grief would envelop their day-to-day lives.

The pain of loss was unyielding, though no less so than the words of the indomitable Margaret Mullaney. One particular pearl of wisdom was returned to often by her family:

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

And so Shelagh, every inch her mother’s daughter, found that opportunity, took in the warm glow of a simple idea, and seized it. She called it Memsta.

There is only one element of the discourse of bereavement applied in the Memsta application layout, and it sets the tone of the user experience from the offset: “When a loved one passes on, they become a star.” It was a story Mullaney was told as a child, and one she took comfort in in the aftermath of her family’s loss. The idea made it easier for her to sleep at night, and it is beautifully immortalized in the shining latticework of compassion and community that expands every day on Memsta.

Memsta, which is available for free, allows users to create a profile and upload their own stars, upon whose page they can then share written tributes, photo and video memories, and songs of importance. A star can be private, in which case new users must be invited to view it in order to add their own posts, or public, available through the Memsta search system. The idea here is that sharing is cathartic; in a frightening time, it is no small thing to feel less alone. An optional journal feature is also available for users to chronicle their own journeys. Its questions and prompts are broad and unobtrusive, but brimming with tenderness: “Did you have any meaningful conversations today?” and “How might you make tomorrow better?”

The design of the Memsta star was the very first challenge undertaken by Mullaney’s development team; an unconventional way to begin a project of such sweeping scale, but certainly not an illogical one. Heart was always at the core of the enterprise. This is also why, despite all odds, Mullaney was absolutely determined to launch Memsta on the anniversary of her mother’s passing. Fuelled by purpose, she worked fast, resolving that simplicity was key and that the project’s first form would be an MVP, or minimum viable project, one with just enough features to satisfy early users and provide inspiration for new features in the future.

There are many who argue that the sphere of web development is not the most appropriate industry for the production of grief management tools. In a time of intense vulnerability, many of those who mourn a loved one fear the often-brutalizing effects of insensitivity. The raw feelings grief draws out can be anxiety-provoking to share. A program will never know empathy, and so it can seem easier to scoff and turn away than to trust.

But the headspace in which Mullaney designed Memsta is apparent in every aspect of its interface.

“I can’t promise Memsta will heal your pain,” she said in a UX Planet post. “In fact, I don’t believe the pain from losing someone you love so dearly can ever be completely healed. But what I do believe is that using Memsta might make the journey a little easier.”

Memsta is not some vacuous digital sinkhole or sounding board for the raw emotionality that colors us as people, sucking us in and brushing us off in the process. The application does not presume to preach about what any loss should mean. Instead, it provides a gently-formed space where that experience can be explored by all who it affects.

For Shelagh Mullaney, the creation of Memsta was a way of restoring the stars to a darkened sky. Her dedication of the app reads: “To the wonderful, kind, caring, loving woman who always put others before herself. You inspired me to build Memsta and share it with the world.” And for that, over the heads of so many Memsta users, the stars shine a little brighter each day.

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