Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 9 June 2012 / 18 Sivan 5772

Old Memories

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Jonathan

Dear Rabbi,

My grandmother is in the final stages of dementia and she could leave us at any time now. We just don’t know when. My question is about her memories. I wonder where her memories are. Are they gone, are they in Heaven or will the memories “catch up” with her when her soul is in Heaven?

Dear Jonathan,

I truly empathize with how you must feel. It’s so difficult to see a loved one slowly become detached from the world and from those who were such an important part of his or her life.

And what’s really hard about your grandmother’s situation is that so much of our love for a person is bound with our wonderful memories of everything we shared together. We therefore assume that that person’s love for us fades and is lost with his or her fading and lost memory. It is a very hopeless feeling, and the sense of void over the loss of that person is, unfortunately, felt so acutely, even while he or she is still among us.

I understand that this is at least part of what’s troubling you about where your grandmother’s memories are and whether they will be regained.

From the Jewish perspective, the impact of one’s life experiences on the psyche, which we call memory and perceive as a function of the brain, also affect the soul. But while the brain, as a finite, physical instrument wears out and eventually expires, the soul, which is spiritual and eternal, does not.

This means that although the brain may longer be able to access the memories accrued in the mind, the soul is still very aware of every experience accumulated through one’s lifetime. So even if your grandmother seems detached or totally disconnected from her surroundings, that’s only because her brain no longer functions properly as the interface between her body and mind/soul. But from a Jewish point of view, her soul is perfectly aware of everything happening around her.

And when she passes, and is fully liberated from the limitations of body in general, and from her ailment in particular, she will remember you and her other loved-ones, and all that you shared together, with exquisite detail and vividness.

It’s for this reason that you should continue your relationship with her in as much as a natural way as possible until she passes, and continue to cultivate it after she moves on by maintaining a spiritual connection with her through prayer, Torah study, mitzvah observance and charity on her behalf.

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