The Wrong Answer to Grief


A guilty pleasure of mine, of sorts, is true crime podcasts. I was listening to one recently. It was on “Crime Junkies,” regarding “The Hendricks Case.” In that case, a woman and her three children were killed in their home while the father was on a business trip. More information can be found in the book “Reasonable Doubt” by Steve Vogel.

The man, David Hendricks, along with the family were intensely religious. The exact denomination is not particularly important, but I would describe them as “Conservative Evangelical” or perhaps Fundamentalist.

Although Hendricks was convicted originally for the crime, the conviction was eventually overturned. It was determined that the evidence was not adequate to convict, and the case is officially unsolved to this day.

One thing that led David Hendricks to be thought guilty was something he said to reporters during the initial investigation. “Hendricks said that he knew that ‘Suzie and my three kids are much better off and I wish them back for me as a selfish thing, but I know that they are with the Lord Jesus in heaven, and I am satisfied in knowing this.'” Then asked about what would happen to the one who did the crime. His response was, “I would like to see him get saved. It would be worth it if one person found their way to heaven, don’t you think?” <Vogel’s book, pages 61-62>

Many people reacted strongly to these statements. The first statement could sound a bit like the presumed thought process of a family annihilator— “The world is horrible and I am doing them a favor by killing them.” The second one is just as open to uncertain interpretations. It could be interpreted as saying that killing his family is ‘worth it.’

Now, I will admit that I wasn’t really brought up in a religious setting that would answer in this way. However, I certainly am familiar with these sort of responses. Some Christians are encouraged not to cry or mourn at funerals. After all, isn’t the deceased in a better place. Isn’t it selfish to want them back? Shouldn’t we celebrate their entry to heaven rather than grieve the loss?

Even in ministry we sometimes get the “if only one person comes to Christ, isn’t it worth it?” It seems so wrong to argue against it. Nevertheless, I will. Often a ministry is done poorly— and then justified by that expression— “if only one….” The problem is that it is commonly not one gain with no loss. I have seen activities where many are potentially turned off due to manipulative tactics, ‘hard sell’ regimens, and general mistreatment. In those situations, the question really should be worded, “If dozens of people are led to believe that the Gospel of Christ is odious because of our activity, but one person comes to Christ, isn’t it worth it?” Well, in that case, the answer is clearly NO… it is not worth it. To cause immature believers to stumble and seekers discouraged to keep seeking, is a grave mistake.

Actually, if you think about it, Hendrick’s statements are very much in line with the “Use every opportunity to stare the faith— in season and out of season.” I would argue that this situation was very much “out of season” and his talk about salvation and heaven probably did more to turn people off to Christians than make people consider being a follower of Christ. Instead of thinking “Wow, Mr. Hendricks is such a man of holy faith!” they were thinking, “Oh my, Mr. Hendricks is either insane, or a killer, or both.”

But I would like to add another reason why I think the responses here were in error. They were attempts to theologize or spiritualize, rather than address grief. Of course, maybe he “did it” and maybe he felt no grief. I simply don’t know. But assuming he is grieving, throwing out spiritual platitudes is, sadly, not a good way to deal with grief. Christians are, often, not the best at dealing with downer feelings. This is strange since the Jews are. The Laments in the Psalms are absolutely wonderful songs of sadness, grief, pain, and anger. Many Christians did not get the message. One of the silliest things I heard was a preacher who said that Jesus was crying at the gravesite of Lazarus, NOT because of grief (He knew He was about to raise up Lazarus after all), but because of the lack of faith of the people there. If Jesus had empathy, however, crying was quite appropriate. His friend was sick and died… and others were tormented in the loss. The fact that things would get better does not undermine the pain in the community and in the moment.

Loss and pain are part of being human— Christians are human too, and are at our best when we behave as humans, truly acquainted with grief.

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