God and loss

Readers respond to articles about the division of Sept. 11 funds and a Christian fundamentalist's conversion.

Published January 4, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Read "The impossible calculus of loss" by Janelle Brown.

I hold the utmost sympathy for the victims and their families in New York and elsewhere -- their lives have been forever changed. However, who is going to explain to the wife of a New York firefighter who tragically died fighting a fire Sept. 9 that he was "worth less" than the firefighter who died two days later?

The bean counting of the federal compensation fund just turns my stomach. This is more than a bribe of victims' families not to sue; it is tacit acceptance of a litigious way of life in America.

-- Catherine Edwards

I am writing first to praise Janelle Brown's article. This article begins to present some of the complex issues that must be faced when attempting to help those affected by the Sept. 11 tragedies. I would also like to point out one area that the article neglects to mention: the plight of gay and lesbian families of the victims of Sept. 11.

As chronicled by the Human Rights Campaign, it is unclear whether or not the families of gay and lesbian victims will be eligible for the assistance discussed in Ms. Brown's piece. There is no doubt that there were gay and lesbian heroes on Sept. 11 who died (such as passenger Mark Bingham, whom Sen. John McCain suggested may have saved hundreds of lives, or a pilot on one of the doomed flights who lived in Washington, D.C., with his same-sex partner). And surely there were hundreds of gay and lesbian victims. As Americans, these victims and their families should be treated equally.

The guidelines for the federal funds (and some private funds) are unclear as to whether lifelong same-sex partners or the non-blood-related children of gay victims will be eligible for help. The events of Sept. 11 show that, in the end, we are all Americans and that the kind of race- and sexual orientation-based discrimination of the past have no place in a civil society. The victims gave their lives in an attack on the freedom and diversity of our great nation. The response to these attacks should show that we no longer tolerate invidious distinctions that discriminate amongst Americans.

-- Glenn Levy

I'll get right to the point. I was widowed -- at age 33 -- in Dec. 1997. My husband was 41 when he died in a hospital intensive care unit as the result of pulmonary emboli. He had not been ill; his death was a total shock. I took him to the ER the day after Thanksgiving and 10 days later he was dead.

I wish I could say my four children, the youngest of whom were 5 and 6 years old, and I were treated with kid gloves and a monumental outpouring of compassion his death, but it's not the case. It didn't take long for me to realize that although our world had been turned upside down and would never be the same, as far as everyone else was concerned it was "sad" but hey, life goes on. My first inkling of this came two days after my husband died, when I asked the hospital for a copy of his medical record -- they charged me $250 for it, citing "administrative costs."

I managed to hang on to our house for a couple of years but eventually had to sell it because it had become too much of a struggle to keep on my sole income -- which amounts to roughly one-seventh of my husband's income at the time he died. And raising four children alone as a widow is difficult in ways that don't begin to stop at the monetary considerations -- but those certainly are significant. I could list the many other financial difficulties we've faced since my husband's death, and the many instances of having charitable organizations tell me they had nothing to offer because I had a job and therefore we weren't quite poor enough for, say, assistance with utility bills, but why? What difference would it make? We're essentially invisible; our "tragedy" is simply not big enough nor dramatic enough nor, dare I say it, political enough to hold anyone's interest for long.

After my husband died, I began a Web site to collect my writings related to grief and widowhood. Through that site other people widowed prior to 9/11 have contacted me in the last few months expressing their dismay and, yes, anger at what's happening now in the aftermath of the attacks and the vast amounts of money to be distributed to the victims. I've heard from people whose financial situation since being widowed has become dire enough to cause severe depression; suicidal ideation is not at all uncommon.

Still, I think it's safe to say that none of us who were widowed prior to that day begrudge the help anyone in genuine need may receive from whatever source. But you can't imagine how frustrating and depressing it is to read article after article describing people bickering over whether or not these monies are being distributed "fairly," or family members proclaiming that a little over a million dollars just is not enough. To my ears, in my financial circumstance as someone widowed prior to Sept. 11 and granted precious little special consideration from people on the street, much less the government, it all sounds obscene. I am an American citizen, as was my husband, as are our children, yet my fellow American citizens -- and my government -- are not especially concerned about our well-being since the death of my husband. In fact, the government's interest in me since then has been limited to two things: tallying how much tax I owe, and keeping careful track of my earnings otherwise so that when I reach the earnings limit for widows (around $9,000 per year) they can start deducting from the social security "survivor benefit" which I receive.

I'll say what I know many other pre-9/11 widowed people are thinking but will rarely speak aloud: Late at night when I can't sleep due to worry about how I'm going to scrape together a $300 electric bill or pay the rent or find money for my son's college application fee, I sometimes have perverse thoughts that only add to the ongoing pain and frustration of being in this position. I think how much "better" it would be for us if my husband had died in some high-profile, government-recognized "tragedy" instead of "only" in a hospital. I am horrified as soon as I have the thought, of course -- it's not money I want, what I want is my children's father back -- but it's a horror that just keeps playing on an endless loop. And I suspect it will continue as long as stories stay in the news about 9/11 families bickering over their charity money.

Someday my younger children will want to know why the life of their dad was less important or somehow "worth" less than that of someone who died in New York or Washington or Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. I'll try to explain that it's not necessarily that simple, but nothing I can say will change the reality of what we live every single day. To the contrary: Our reality -- the reality in this country -- will make me sound like a liar when I tell my children their father was every bit as worthy and important as anyone who died on 9/11.

-- Linda DeVault

Read "Seeing the light" by Carolyn S. Briggs.

I was raised as an evangelical fundamentalist as well. I can't for the life of me understand, however, how you could get God so confused with your church. I matured as I grew older and found a different expression of Christianity (United Church of Christ) that makes much more sense, accepts other faiths and allows for questions. I think that you would do well to look for God in places other than your former church. While I am well aware of the all-or-nothing culture from which you came, I can assure you that the church has much more to offer you than that. It continues to amaze me how folks can believe that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God can be so narrowly defined. Best wishes to you and, dare I say, God bless.

-- Curtis Martin

I was extremely moved by Carolyn Briggs' essay. I also was reared as a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, although I began questioning that belief system much sooner -- at age 16. Fearing relentless persecution by my parents, I decided to keep those questions to myself. In the 25 years since, I've gradually found the courage to live a religion-free life in a nation of near-compulsory Judeo-Christianity. Finally, last year, motivated by the desire to be an actual adult, I told my parents I'm no longer a Christian. Here's what they heard: "Mom and Dad, I've decided I want to burn in hell for all eternity. Please save me from myself." Now they have become my own personal missionaries. Considering they tried to force my grandfather to accept their beliefs as he lay dying in the hospital, I'm certain they'll pursue me to the very end, should mine come first. Looks like I'm already burning in hell, doesn't it?

-- Terri McIntosh

This article reminds me of my uncle. Several years back he was convinced that Bill Clinton was the Antichrist. Then he found out that some of what he had been told was incorrect. As a result he now thinks that Clinton can do no wrong. He also hates Republicans and thinks of George Bush as an evil person.

All movements, religious or otherwise, have extremists. Some of those extremists, if you catch up with them several years later, will have moved to the opposite extreme.

I am a Christian. Some would call me a "fundamentalist" because I believe the Bible. In all my 20-plus years of meeting and interacting with other evangelical Christians, only around 2 percent had the unfortunate and narrow-minded type of faith described in this article.

I am a rational person. I am a scientist. I do not stick my fingers in my ears when someone presents a differing point of view. I welcome debate and critical thinking. I urge non-Christians to take a firsthand look at the evidence for Christianity and not to reject it based upon the straw man that others present as authentic. Just because it reflects their experience does not mean that it is any more than a narrow slice of reality.

-- Shae Murphy

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