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Dying with Bernard

After reading moving comments from Annapurna (click and scroll down–worth reading), about his/her struggle with having chronic illness that is expected to lead to an early death — Heaven forbid — we began talking at home about dying and American culture.

Why are so many in our secular culture fascinated yet struggling with the topic of near death experiences, or death in general, or avoiding it altogether? We began writing about this very topic. Shortly before we were going to post, we discovered that Elisha Goldstein (in what Jung called “a synchronicity” but we believe to be much more), had written a powerful blog post about death and dying and life.  Although we have observations, opinions, and ideas, we would like to continue the conversation by simply telling the story of our friend, Bernard.

Bernard lost his family in the holocaust. By dint of the gift of a toothache, his life was saved. An abscessed tooth prevented him from traveling with friends who had meticulously planned an escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna. But Bernard, who had already been kicked out of medical school for being Jewish, was left behind—he was in agony and had to see a dentist. While he was being treated his friends who had left him behind were all captured and a short while later were murdered in a concentration camp.

After his dentist appointment Bernard managed to escape from Austria and arrived in Italy with the clothes on his back and a couple of photographs of his family in his pocket. After a few weeks he received a boat ticket to the United States from his father who had smuggled it out of Austria. He had given up his ticket, which had been given him by a grateful client, and he and Bernard’s mother, who had refused to travel without him, also remained in Vienna. Bernard suffered tremendous guilt feelings about this his entire life.

Bernard arrived in New York penniless but managed to get in touch with a distant cousin who helped him get a job as a clerk in the U.S. army. He saved every dime from his paycheck and in order to buy boat tickets for his family, but only managed to get his brother out before the Nazis came for his parents. They were murdered in a concentration camp, too.

A short while later Bernard met his future wife, who was literally the “girl next door”! She and her family had lived next to Bernard’s family in Vienna. Somehow they ended up on the same block in Brooklyn. Like the toothache, it was another example of a near-miraculous conversion of events in Bernard’s life.

He got a job in the U.S. post office where he worked for the rest of his life. Vera and he married and lived happily together until their 80s when she developed Alzheimer’s disease. Each and every day Bernard would walk slowly to the bus stop (he had arthritis, emphysema, and other health problems), and take a bus to the nursing home (he had never learned how to drive), where he would sit at her bedside for eight to ten hours at a time. When she passed away he was 92. We met him two years later after we moved into the same apartment building. We ended up riding the elevator together one day and we invited him to dinner. He quickly accepted and we became instant pals.

He had been given a computer as a gift from another neighbor and was learning how to use it. He was delighted to have made new friends who would e-mail him each day and visit him a few times a week. He would send us jokes by e-mail and we would send jokes back. He would usually eat one or two meals a week with us and a close friendship rapidly developed. Soon, he confided his deepest secret to us: He was angry with God.

He would sit at our table, or in his living room, tears pouring down his face or fist shaking in anger—it depended on his mood. “How could God allow my parents to be killed by the Nazis?” he would ask.

For nearly three years this was our primary topic of conversation though occasionally he reminisced about Vera. Bernard, though not an outwardly religious or even obviously spiritual person, had the most personal relationship with God we ever witnessed. He talked to God. He yelled at God. He asked God for mercy. He related to God as a son to a father, albeit a bit of an angry son. He was in almost constant dialogue with God.

Shortly before his 97th birthday, Bernard’s emphysema began to get worse. He suffered terrible pain, collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. When they discharged him, instead of getting a visiting nurse at home, he insisted on moving from his apartment into the nursing home where his wife had died. He wanted to die there.

Every day we visited him and advocated for him with the doctors and nurses. It was not a pleasant place. But Bernard was reaching out to suffering in a way that was very painful for us to watch. He felt he somehow deserved to be mistreated by the staff. Our feisty, assertive friend became passive and quiet.

Finally, when he saw he wasn’t dying, he agreed to return home. But within a few weeks we noticed a change in him. Sure, he was 97, but somehow he never really looked “old”. He was vibrant, dressed well, and looked like he was in his 70s.

But now he started wearing an old bathrobe all the time and he stopped putting in his dentures.  He told us flat out that he was dying and that dying was very, very hard. He said, “It’s harder than being born.”  Although he agreed to have a nurse (who was a wonderful woman who we still keep in touch with), he refused any medical intervention. His doctor put him on a salt free, sugar free, meat free diet but he told us he was dying so why shouldn’t he eat what he wanted? The nurse agreed so we cooked him whatever he asked for and the last few days he lived on tiny sips of homemade chicken soup with nibbles of feather-light Viennese-style dumplings.

One night , a few hours after we had visited him, the nurse called and told us Bernard “was going to be gone soon” and said we “should hurry and say good bye.”  We went to him. Bernard—the man in pain—was gone. A glowing, strong Bernard lay propped on the pillows. He grabbed our hand very tightly and with a face radiant with joy, said a few words about various topics, then, practically shouting said “God bless you both.”  Then he let go, and in a surprisingly deep and powerful voice, far more resonant than his usual, frail, near-whisper told us, “God is preparing me a new home and my new home is so beautiful!

“It is light and clean and more beautiful than I imagined. Oooh look! It’s so big! God loves me. He loves me.”

The struggle was up. He breathed his last. There was such an expression of bliss on his face—it is impossible to describe. The man who was angry with God, made up with Him.

Cup of Soup

Next week: Film Debuts–When Medicine Got It Wrong

Coming Soon: New Therapy Series

Dying with Bernard

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2010). Dying with Bernard. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 16, 2018, from


Last updated: 22 Apr 2010
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 22 Apr 2010
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