Gaining From Loss III: Kayla Stoecklein #140
November 16, 2022
It is fair to ask what gain Kayla Stoecklein experienced from the loss of her husband, Andrew, to suicide in 2018. What good could possibly come from where she found herself after such a devastating tragedy? What beauty could be birthed from those terrible ashes?
In our conversation with Kayla this week, she answers all those questions in ways that will inspire you as much as they surprise you. She discusses with Warwick the moving and meaningful truths she’s packed into her book — Rebuilding Beautiful: Welcome What Is, Dare to Dream Again, and Step Bravely into What Could Be – which documents her journey of, as she puts it, discovering how loss gives us new eyes to see the grace threaded through all humanity.
Her encouragement to all of us? A beautiful world waits for us on the other side of loss. A world so expansive it has room for our pain.
- Kayla’s life pre-loss (4:41)
- Her early married life as a pastor’s wife (8:36)
- Her husband’s struggle with anxiety and burnout (12:13)
- The aftermath of Andrew’s suicide (18:00)
- Gaining compassion through her loss (26:05)
- The importance of embracing your pain … regardless of its source (29:13)
- Finding her new identity after Andrew’s death (40:56)
- Her first steps toward once again feeling worthy (47:55)
- How her pain has been one of the greatest teachers of her life (51:47)
- The new adventure she’s chosen (53:31)
- Kayla’s life of significance (56:24)
Hi, friends. Here at Beyond the Crucible, we often get a chance to dive into some of the hardest moments of someone’s life, everything from facing loss to trying to find your purpose in life. This summer, we’ve been working extremely hard to pull together a full e-course – our first – filled with more than three hours of lessons learned on how you can find and fully embrace Second-Act Significance. To gain access to this course, visit secondactsignificance.com, that’s secondactsignificance.com. Now, here’s today’s podcast episode.
Welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.
While we were away from him the following day for just a little bit, taking some of those next steps, we were getting a guest speaker for Sunday, we were making a plan for that team rally that was supposed to happen that evening. We were calling other pastors, asking questions, picking their brains on inpatient facilities while we were away from him making a plan to take care of him, take care of his mind, and take care of his health. He attempted suicide and it was an absolute blindside. We had no idea how sick his mind really was, how big his pain truly was, and we just had no idea. And so, he was rushed to the hospital and they ran a bunch of tests on his body and the doctors delivered the most terrific news that there was nothing that they could do to save his life. And so, on August 25th, 2018, he took his last breath. And with that, I took my first in this very unexpected life as a widow at 29 years old with three little boys that were two, four, and five.
You may wonder after hearing those heartbreaking life-changing words, how this week’s guest Kayla Stoecklein fits into a series we’re calling Gaining from Loss. What gain was there in her losing her husband in such tragic fashion? What good could possibly come from where she found herself emotionally and circumstantially after such a devastating tragedy? What beauty could be birthed from those terrible ashes?
Hi, I’m Gary Schneeberger, co-host of the show. In our conversation with Kayla, she answers all those questions in ways that will inspire you as much as they surprise you. She discusses with Warwick the moving and meaningful truths she’s packed into her book Rebuilding Beautiful: Welcome What is, Dare to Dream Again and Step Bravely into What Could Be, which documents her journey of as she puts it, “Discovering how loss gives us new eyes to see the grace threaded through all humanity.” Her encouragement to all of us, “A beautiful world waits for us on the other side of loss, a world so expansive, it has room for our pain.”
Kayla, again, thank you so much. I just loved reading your book, Rebuilding Beautiful. And it’s worth really stating exactly what you have on the front cover of this book, it says, Welcome What Is, Dare Dream Again and after Rebuilding Beautiful, the title it says, and Step Bravely into What Could Be. I like to think I’m a reasonable writer, but I’ve got to say this was superbly written, deeply profound, moving and we’ll get into what your loss was. My loss was very different. As listeners know, a loss of 150-year old family business. And yes, there was mourning, there was grief. Very different. You can’t compare crucibles. But so much, if not all of the book, even though I haven’t suffered your loss, I deeply related to. I mean, it was just profound, overwhelming, it was a gift to be able to read this, and obviously we don’t know each other.
I’m not somebody that says things if they don’t mean it, so I’d just be nice and say thank you, it was an interesting book. I don’t know what I’d say, but I wouldn’t say what I just said. I don’t believe in being nasty, but I don’t believe in false praise. So this really was a gift to be able to read this and I got a lot out of it from my own personal loss situation. So before we get to the loss, tell us a bit about Kayla Stoecklein growing up, your family, just what was life like pre-loss. So I know you grew up in Southern California, I believe, so just tell us about what life was like for Kayla growing up.
Yeah. I’ve lived in Southern California my whole life, still live in Southern California and growing up had an older sister, parents who were married, grew up going to church every Sunday. It was a huge part of my upbringing and had a great suburban middle class upbringing. Yeah, no complaints.
What were your dreams growing up pre-meeting Andrew?
Yeah. I think every little girl dreams of one day getting married and being a mom and having a family, and so, I think I held tightly to those dreams and I always knew I wanted to work as well. And so I didn’t never really knew what that would be, but I was excited to go to college and figure it out. I think I changed my major three or four times and still ended up with a degree that I don’t even use. But I think there was a covering over my childhood and I had a great upbringing and my parents did the best with the tools that they had been given and the families that they were raised in. And they did get divorced when I was a senior in high school and led me into this new journey where I really felt like I was on my own at 18 years old and left home and never went back.
And I met my husband sophomore year of college. I was a sophomore, he was a junior and we fell in love really fast. There’s a saying at Christian colleges, “ring by spring” and I had that ring by spring. We were engaged when, goodness, I think I was 20 years old, we got engaged and 21 when we got married, he was 22 and we just started our lives and he was called to ministry. So I was excited to learn how to be a pastor’s wife and learn the ins and outs of ministry and I had grown up in the church, but I had no idea what it meant to actually be on staff and lead a church. And so, I was eager to learn and excited to do it all with him.
Well, it’s funny you mentioned that. I have three adult kids, like 31 into 20s. They all went to a Christian college, Taylor University in Indiana, which is very missional wonderful place. But none of them either gave or got a ring by rings, it’s like we were hoping. But hey, given that my dad was married three times, my mother twice and I was from the last marriage of each, I said, you want to find the right one who obviously from my perspective is a person of faith and also it’s good to be cautious, but maybe I gave too much of the caution sermon. I don’t know. But yeah, it didn’t happen to my kids. But that’s all good.
So you got married to Andrew and from what I understand his dad was a pastor of a pretty big church in Southern California and then he became lead pastor and his dad passed away. I’m sure no church is perfect, but sounds like it was a great church and being a pastor’s wife is not easy, lead pastor’s wife, everybody thinks you’re meant to be this role model and you’re human doing your best and a lot of stress and pressure. I know Andrew obviously had his challenges, so talk about what life was like pre-loss, just being married, you began to have small kids, pastors’ wife. What was life like for Kayla in that season of life?
Yeah. Like I said, we got married very young and just went straight into ministry. And his parents had started the church when Andrew was three years old, and so he had grown up in it. It was like the fourth sibling, part of the family. They all just deeply loved the church and cared for the church. And so, Andrew was on staff as the creative arts’ director when his dad was diagnosed with leukemia in 2011, we were only married for a year, andrew was 23 years old and he just totally stepped up in a million ways and was preaching regularly on Sundays and there were a lot of Saturdays as well. His dad modeled for him that you show up and speak on Sunday no matter what. As best as you can, you show up and speak on Sunday and don’t let anything get in the way of that.
And so even while his dad was sick and battling leukemia, we were recording message series from the hospital room. He would show up and be wheeled onto the stage and his wheelchair. He just tried his best to still lead the church through his pain, and that was modeled for Andrew. And so Andrew did the same. He led the church through his pain and through the loss of his dad. His dad passed away in 2015 and his dad was his mentor, his dad was his hero, his dad was his best friend. And so, it really was a catastrophic loss for Andrew, and I don’t think Andrew really took the time he needed to take to grieve that loss. He took two weeks off and then went straight back to work and preached an incredible series on heaven. And his heart was for the church, he wanted to lead the church through their pain.
And it was modeled to him that you just keep going and so you just kept on going and we kept on having babies. We had our first boy in 2012 and our next boy a couple years later and our third boy a couple years after that. And so, our home life was also very busy, you don’t really find rest at home when you work all day and you come home to toddlers and babies. But life was full and it was good and it was beautiful and it was meaningful. And I found so much purpose in supporting Andrew and being a pastor’s wife and being a stay at home mom and supporting the Women’s Ministry and supporting the MOPS Ministry. And it was a really beautiful, meaningful life. And on paper, I think Andrew and I both had everything we could have ever asked for and more.
He was in his lead role at the church. I was married to this very successful, handsome, driven guy, I had the mom car, we had the beautiful home, we had the three beautiful blue eye boys. Life wasn’t easy, the pressures of ministry and the learning curve of ministry, it was huge. We had a lot to learn. Andrew was very young and I think he felt like he had a lot to prove and big shoes to fill, his dad’s shoes to fill. And so we were really young, had a lot to learn and then burnout happened.
So talk about that, because obviously that’s a bit of a backstory to the loss, anxiety, burnout. Tell us about that. And I’m sure you’ve thought about a massive amount and I don’t know how much of that was related to his dad dying so young and Andrew being so young and just the expectations and the family business in a sense, except this is for the Lord. And I have a feeling that probably played a factor in some of the challenges. So it took a bit about pre-loss, just some of those challenges Andrew faced in that period.
Totally, Andrew felt the pressure to carry the mantle of responsibility at the church, for sure took that very seriously. And also, I think he felt the pressure to carry his family. He was the oldest son in the family, and so, he felt this pressure to take care of his mom and to help take care of his sister and his brother, and also our little family that was growing. All of the pressure, the years of just running fast and running hard and not stopping and never grieving the huge loss that he had, I think all of that just totally caught up with him. And he started experiencing panic attacks in the fall of 2017. And that was the first just warning sign of something is not right. And it’s like I describe it as we have this dashboard and then the lights start going off, it’s time to get your oil changed, it’s time to pull over, it’s time to check the brakes.
And I think some of those lights started going off on Andrew’s dashboard. Andrew had just shown up and done so much and he was a superhero in all of our eyes, and so, we just all assumed he was capable, he could handle it, he had done it, he would continue to do it, and nothing was going to get in his way of his calling. And so, at first we thought, well, maybe it’s just a thyroid problem. He had had a thyroid problem in high school and so we thought, “You know what, we’ll just go see a doctor, get some medication, I’m sure the panic attacks will go away.” So we kind of shrugged it off, no big deal. But the panic attacks kept getting worse and worse and worse. And it got so bad that he ended up in the hospital in April 2018.
So he had suffered for over six months from these panic attacks that were very debilitating, happening three to four times a week, and he was still showing up and preaching on Sunday. There was even a Sunday, it was Easter Sunday in 2018 and he had a massive panic attack in the bathroom in the offices right before he was supposed to be on stage to preach. And somehow some way he did, he got on stage, he worked through it and he’s on stage speaking, I’m in the green room crying and I’m like, “What in the world is happening? What are we doing? What are we sacrificing for the sake of the church? And is it worth it?” And so the following week, he landed in the hospital and that’s when we said, “Enough is enough. Something’s going on here. These panic attacks aren’t going away. It’s not a thyroid issue. What is happening?”
And so we all decided, Andrew agreed that it was time for him to take a sabbatical. And his sabbatical had no end date really and truly the lead staff at the church and the board of directors told him, “Take as much time as you need.” And our family was telling him the same thing, “Take as much time as you need.” And that was really hard for a guy that’s very driven for success, that loves his job, that deeply, deeply loves the church. I think it was really hard for him to stop, to give himself permission to rest and to heal. And so, he went on the sabbatical in 2018 and just a few weeks later, we were sitting in a psychiatrists’ office and he was diagnosed with depression and we all were able to connect to all the dots and it just made sense for him.
And I was a little surprised, and I’ll never forget sitting there and I had nothing to say but the doctor looked at me and said, “Your husband has depression.” And I was so shocked and so stunned that I didn’t say anything. And then we walked out to the car and got into the car and I turned and looked at Andrew and I said, “How did we end up here?” I was just so shocked and so surprised and it really caught me off guard. When I married this guy, 21 and 22 years old, I never thought depression would be a part of our story. But Andrew and the doctors were both very confident that he was on the low end of the spectrum and that with rest and medication and time off work, that he would be back to himself and back to work in no time.
And so, we took the sabbatical very seriously. We were seeing a therapist together for two hours every single week. He was seeing a psychiatrist every other week. He was taking medication for the depression and anxiety. He was spending time with mentors. We went on a two week road trip, just the two of us to spend time on our marriage. We had people over to pray over our home, to pray over him, like we were coming at it from every angle and really truly doing everything we could to help him rest and heal. And by the end of the summer in 2018, the doctor thought he was getting better and Andrew thought he was getting better, and so they thought the next right step in his healing journey would be to go back to work. And so, he went back to work August 1st, 2018 and hit the ground running and gave two powerful weekend messages on the topic of mental health.
And he talked about his journey with depression. He talked about suicide. He gave out the suicide hotline number. He quoted statistics from the NAMI website out of anybody, he would’ve known where to go for help, he had the resources, he had the phone numbers, he would’ve known where to go. And then headed into the third weekend, he was ready for Sunday, we had a big team, volunteer team rally. We were supposed to have that Friday night. So he was looking forward to that. And his mind was still very fragile, he had told our family and told our staff that he was at about 65% when he went back to work and was helping to ease back into ministry over time. But anybody in ministry could probably tell you it’s really hard to ease back into ministry. Ministry is a full on thing, just this full on beast of itself.
And so, he had a really bad day in the office that week and his fragile mind just could not process some of the information that he received at work, and he just spiraled. And the spiral was big enough and loud enough for our lead staff and for our family to say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. This guy is much sicker than I think we realized. And maybe he wasn’t ready to go back to work and maybe we need to take some more steps for his healing and maybe he needs to go to an inpatient facility. Maybe he needs to take a longer sabbatical.” I don’t know what he needs, but maybe he needs more time. And so while we were away from him the following day for just a little bit, taking some of those next steps, we were getting a guest speaker for Sunday.
We were making a plan for that team rally that was supposed to happen that evening. We were calling other pastors, asking questions, picking their brains on inpatient facilities while we were away from him making a plan to take care of him, to take care of his mind and take care of his health. He attempted suicide and it was an absolute blindside. We had no idea how sick his mind really was, how big his pain truly was. And we just had no idea. And so he was rushed to the hospital and they ran a bunch of tests on his body and the doctors delivered the most terrific news that there was nothing that they could do to save his life. And so, on August 25th, 2018, he took his last breath. And with that, I took my first in this very unexpected life as a widow at 29 years old with three little boys that were two, four, and five.
I mean, it’s probably hard for listeners to get their hearts around what you just have said. I mean, obviously you’ve found miraculously a way to move forward, but in those weeks and months after, you obviously did a lot of gut churning, reflection, what did we miss? What did the doctors miss? What could we have done? A swirl of questions and what could I have done better to a swirl of anger, whether it’s at God, doctors, people at church, whoever, it’s like, couldn’t somebody have done something? Maybe anger at Andrew? Why couldn’t you have taken care of yourself years ago? Or talk about some of the swirl of emotions in those weeks and months after. Because I’m sure it was, I can’t think of the word to describe it, just horrific as an understatement. But what were some of the swirl of emotions and thoughts in those weeks and months afterwards?
It’s a sea of would’ve, could’ve, should’ves. When somebody dies by suicide, you’re just surrounded and engulfed in a sea of could’ve, would’ve, should’ves because the truth is, anybody that loved him and knew him would’ve done anything in their power to save him. We just had no idea how bad it really was. And I often describe his death like a child drowning at a swimming pool at a birthday party. He was really truly surrounded by people that loved him and we just had no idea he was drowning, we had no idea how bad it really was. And it took me a long time, it took me a long time to let go of some of those regrets to work through some of those regrets and the things that I missed. One of the main things I missed, Andrew did talk about suicide and there was a conversation that we had at our kitchen counter a few months before he died.
And he was telling me he was up in the middle of the night and he was struggling with suicidal thoughts, and I just totally did not take him seriously and reacted out of my own exhaustion. It was a really hard summer on my end as well. I was caring for our three boys while he rested and they’re home for the summer, so that was a full-time gig, and also trying to care for him and living with an unpredictable spouse. His depression, I never knew what version of Andrew I was going to get coming out of the bedroom in the morning if he was going to be happy or sad or angry or exhausted, if he would spend the whole day in the bedroom or if he’d spend time with us. I just never really knew what I was going to get. And so, I was exhausted and isolated in my own ways.
And his therapist described that I was also co-burdening his depression, so I was carrying his depression with him. And so in that moment when he told me he was struggling with suicidal thoughts, I wasn’t able to respond with the heart of love. I just totally reacted out of my own exhaustion and emotion and said all the things you’re not supposed to say to someone that’s struggling with suicidal thoughts. So I had to work through that, and part of working through that for me was writing and sharing all the things I did wrong and the things that I wish I would’ve said. And I wrote a whole blog about the things that I wish I would’ve said. And once somebody tells you they’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, it’s time to lean in, it’s time to ask questions. Questions like, do you have a suicide plan? What problem are you trying to solve through suicide? Do you know when and how you would do it? How often do you think about it? It’s time to take it seriously.
I should have picked up the suicide hotline. I should have picked up my phone and called the suicide hotline number or texted the crisis text line or called his therapist and his psychiatrist and two of his best friends and his family members and told them, “Hey, this is serious. Hey, this is much scarier and much worse than we thought it was and his life is actually in danger and he’s contemplating suicide.” I just had no idea how bad it really was, and I really truly believed it would never happen. And I know I’m not the only one that has had that experience. I know for many of us, we don’t know what to do with the word suicide. We don’t know how to respond to the word suicide. We don’t even know how to say the word suicide out loud.
The truth is the word suicide made me feel so uncomfortable and I didn’t know what to do with it. And so, I just totally ignored it and never brought it up again. And looking back, I wish I would’ve asked him about it every single day. I wish I would’ve asked him, “Are you struggling with suicidal thoughts today? What does that feel like? How can I help you?” I wish I would’ve told his psychiatrist and his therapist that he was struggling, but I had no idea. There’s a huge learning curve when it comes to mental health and everybody’s mental health journey and journey with depression or suicidal ideation or whatever the diagnosis may be, is so unique to that individual. And so, I think Andrew was even lost within himself. I don’t think Andrew even fully understood what was really going on in his own mind.
And his psychiatrist said something to us after he passed away that was really helpful that I’ve held onto. He told us that 90% of suicides are impulsive. And so, it’s this in the moment overwhelming flood of pain and pain that many of us are incapable of understanding unless we’ve lived it, unless we’ve been there, unless we’ve been that close to the edge. There’s an author Ann Voskamp and she wrote a blog about suicide and she described it as being trapped in a burning building and the only way to escape the flames is to jump from the window.
And so, I really truly have no idea what those final moments were like for Andrew. I have no idea what it must have felt like to live with the pain he was living with. And so, at the end of the day, there’s so much grace for him, there’s so much grace for me and the things I didn’t understand and the things that I’ve missed, and I’ve made so much peace with that and just had to let go of those would’ve, could’ve, should’ves in order to move forward and rebuild a brand new life without him.
And what you just said about grace being threaded through life, there’s a line that you’ve said “loss gives us new eyes to see the grace threaded through all humanity.” We’ve called this series Gaining from Loss, which in some people’s eyes be a little controversial, how can you gain from loss? But that is one thing for sure that you have gained in the way that you live your day-to-day life through loss, is that you have received new eyes to see the grace that is threaded through all humanity, right?
Right. Yeah. It’s given me so much compassion and empathy and my pain has given me access to this steeper stream of humanity that I never had access to before because I’d never experienced that kind of pain before that kind of loss before. And so, it’s like when you’re the person walking around the grocery store with unseen pain, it makes you realize that there are thousands of other people walking around the grocery store with unseen pain and that you are not the only one going through something difficult, that there’s tons of other people going through very similar things and grieving very similar losses and walking through their own prescription of pain.
We all have our own prescription of pain and we’re all going through or have just gone through or just about to go through something difficult. And so, it’s totally given me empathy and compassion and grace for the grumpy person at the cash register at the grocery store, for the grumpy mom on the sidelines of the soccer fields, for the stranger that cuts you off on the freeway. It’s like grace upon grace upon grace upon grace. We truly have no idea what it’s like to walk in anybody’s shoes but our own.
And that’s so profound. I think one of the things I’m guessing you must have had to deal with is forgiveness, forgiveness of Andrew, of yourself. It’s easy for outside people who haven’t gone through this to say, “Well, how many of us are experts in suicide?” We don’t study it, we don’t take courses because, I mean, there’s a lot of things we could do in terms of, I don’t know, take a lot of courses about what happens if a kid falls in a pool and there’s about to drown or there’s all sorts of things you could prepare yourself for, but it just seems so abstract. So yeah, I’ve got three young kids to take care of. I don’t really have time to read and take courses and all that. And so, it’s almost impossible to really know how bad it is until it is. And as that psychologist said or psychiatrist, if it’s an impulse, even if you were an expert at everything, it may not have made a difference.
So how did you come to peace with both forgiving yourself, others, God? Because I would’ve thought one of the key steps to moving beyond, as you call it the pit, your worst day is that sense of forgiveness. You must have given where you are now, how did you manage to do that, forgive yourself, Andrew, and the world, everybody?
Yeah. I think it’s an ongoing process. I think it took me years to forgive Andrew, to forgive myself, to forgive the team that was surrounding him. I think it takes embracing every sharp edge of our pain, it takes allowing our pain to transform us and teach us and allowing ourselves to feel everything we need to feel and work through those feelings, work through those feelings of anger, work through those feelings. For me, my loss and my grief brought me all the way to the edge of myself, and I struggled with my own suicidal thoughts, which gave me even greater empathy and compassion for Andrew. And I’ve even changed my language in the way that I talk about suicide. And before Andrew died, I would’ve said things like committed suicide and now I say died by suicide. I don’t use the word committed because committed is a word we attached to phrases like committed a sin or committed a crime or committed a murder.
And all it does is heap further shame and blame onto the shoulders of the person who died. And even that small shift in language has changed to everything for me and it’s given me compassion and empathy for Andrew. Even that phrase alone extends forgiveness to Andrew, and that phrase alone too will change the way that my boys grieve this loss. And I hope that they’re able to discover that same empathy and compassion and forgiveness for their dad that I’ve been able to discover as well and really truly believing that the suicide isn’t anybody’s fault, that it wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t Andrew’s fault, it wasn’t the doctor’s fault, it wasn’t the church’s fault. At the end of the day, it’s a horrific tragedy and no one is to blame. And I think it takes a long time to get there. But I think when we do get there, we’re set free. I think unforgiveness keeps us in chains and when we’re able to make peace with our circumstances, when we’re able to make peace with what happened, were set free.
Yeah. Again, forgive me for being a broken record, but what you said is, again, just so profound about embracing the pain. And I want to pivot as you both unpack your story as well as talk about lessons that listeners can learn from your story. Pain reads a lot of reflection, there can be wisdom from pain, the most unwelcome wisdom you want, but you’re gifted that, to use your words, it’s a sacred gift, which I love that phrase. So you have several sections in the book in this new book, Rebuilding Beautiful, which again, I love the title, that’s such an magnificent phrase. Embrace, heal, explore, dream, live. that first one, embrace, about embracing your pain. And let me just interject for a second, what’s fascinating about this is I identify with this book so much, but yet I haven’t had this kind of a loss.
I met my wife in Australia, we’ve been married over 30 years and every day I say thank you Lord, and I don’t take that for granted at all ever, especially with my dad being married three times, my mother twice. I’m very familiar with the consequences of divorce, which is horrific, certainly on the kids. But yeah, all of the things you talk about, and again, I don’t want to take up your time, but just so that listeners understand that even if you haven’t lost a spouse, you might have had other kinds of loss. Maybe you’re dealing with a Parkinson’s diagnosis. We’ve had people on the podcast with that or a loss of a limb, there’s all sorts of losses that are horrific and tough to get over. And so, the circumstances are different, but I don’t know if you can say it’s equal, the pain, I have no idea what that means, but it’s certainly deep. Please go ahead.
I’ve been here, Warwick, I’m going to do what you may not do and ask you because you’ve said it to me, you read Kayla’s book and each one of the points that you were reading through, you felt that experience yourself from your own crucible experience of losing the family media dynasty. I mean, it is applicable. The truths that she speaks are applicable in how you do that. So I just want to make sure that I tap you on the shoulder and make sure that you share that.
Absolutely. Yeah. So just briefly, because I don’t want to take away from you Kayla and your story and wisdom. But yeah, I mean, for me, growing up in this 150-year-old family media business, I was founded by a person of very strong faith, a strong businessman for Christ as I’ve ever come across. There was this history of service to the community. We had the equivalent of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post in our country. I grew up in this very wealthy family business, dedicated my whole life to going in that, did my undergrad at Oxford Wall Street, Harvard Business School. It was all about duty and services to the country. And didn’t matter if that was my vision, it was my duty kind of thing. So maybe Andrew felt it was his duty to go to his family business in a sense, the church, nothing wrong with that.
Then when I did the $2 billion takeover and it has fell out of family control under my watch. Yeah, it wasn’t just a business. I felt like I betrayed my dad, my ancestor, this sacred cause, I wasn’t clinically depressed, I wasn’t suicidal, I didn’t ideate that way, but I was not in a good place because I just kept crucifying myself like, how could I have been so dumb? I had a Harvard MBA, how could I have made such stupid assumptions? Of course, animosity amongst my family. I don’t try to hurt anybody, I’m not that kind of person. But just trying to understand the pain, try and understand what happened and gradually trying to forgive myself, which was years and years. And every once in a while, I fall off the wagon and have a unforgiving thought to myself. I mean, just it can be a sacred gift and you are right.
It does give you compassion. I mean, I’m empathetic by nature, I like to think, but it has increased my compassion and not judging other people and pain for a purpose. And so yeah, I could go through every single chapter of your book and describe how it relates to my loss. And that’s the universality of what you’ve written, Kayla, is it’s not just about suicide, it’s about loss in general. And this is just profound. I mean, as I said, I could go on forever about what it means to me. So yeah, the first section is embrace. I love embrace the friction or as you colorfully say, embrace the suck, very to the point, don’t run away. I mean, there’s a lot of shaking off the shame. Is that what would you say is in terms of embracing the loss, what’s the most profound thing? Because you have a lot of thoughts in those three chapters.
There’s a quote by the author Jerry Sittser, it’s beautiful quote, and he wrote a beautiful book called A Grace Disguised that I would highly recommend to anybody that’s going through a season of grief. And in this quote, he was having a conversation with a friend and describing what it looks like to go through pain and to go through loss and to feel everything you need to feel. And in this conversation, they were talking about what that is and they were talking about the quickest way to reach the sunrise, the quickest way to get through what you’re going through, isn’t to head west chasing the sunset, but it’s to head east plunging into the darkness until you reach the sunrise. And so, I think that embrace part for me has been that deep dive, that plunge, that willing to go head first into the trauma and the pain, willing to show up for the hard work of healing, willing to feel everything we need to feel.
I think so often in western culture in America, we don’t like to feel pain, we don’t like to feel uncomfortable. We like to avoid pain at all costs, we like to numb our pain at all costs. I know I could have walked into a psychiatrist office and walked out with a giant bag full of prescriptions because of the things that I’ve gone through, would’ve been very easy for me to do that. And not that that’s wrong, I think medicine is incredible and can be a beautiful gift to people that are struggling, but for me, I saw what the medication did to my husband. And so, I wanted to go on this journey of healing as natural as possible and as holistic as possible.
And I’ll never forget sitting in the therapist office and explaining to her, “This hurts like hell. When is this not going to hurt as much as it hurts? I don’t want to get up and live with this pain for another day. I want to be out of my body. I don’t want to feel any of this.” And she looked at me in the eyes with tears in her eyes, I was crying and she had tears in her eyes too and said, “Kayla, the way that you’re feeling is exactly how you’re supposed to feel.” And that was such a gift to me and such an encouragement to me that I didn’t need to run away from my pain, I didn’t need to run away from the feelings. I needed to allow myself to feel the feelings, I needed to allow myself to welcome the reality of what is and all that was lost and grieve every single loss.
When you lose a spouse, it’s like there’s a million other losses that I had to grieve not just the loss of Andrew, but the death of a million little dreams and big dreams that I had of a life with him and what I thought my life was going to look like for the rest of my life. And it’s an ongoing grieving process, it’s an ongoing embrace and it really truly is like spreading wide our arms and welcoming every jagged sharp edge of our story. And I think when we do that, when we allow ourselves to feel it, when we allow ourselves to plunge through the darkness, we really truly do reach the other side. And for me, it took three years. It took three years to finally come up for air. It took three years to finally see the light again and to really believe that life could be beautiful again and start to see that life could be beautiful again even if that life was without Andrew.
Again, I have to think of another word other than profound because it just gets annoying for me to say.
Thank you. There you go. What you just said was so meaningful. I’ll say insightful for the next section. You’re right, you cannot find your way out the other side unless you go through the pain. It is so true. I love the phrase you say, “Our wounds are the way through.” It’s just so good. So the next step, you talk about kind of healing because one of the things I know you had to do is find your identity. I mean, it sounds like you’re struggling a bit with your identity when you were married to Andrew and who am I, am I anybody else other than the pastor’s wife. And it was a bit of a challenge in that season, but it probably got even worse once he went. So talk about just you’ve embraced the pain, but how do you begin to heal and find your identity?
Yeah. Yeah. That was a huge and continues to be a huge part of my healing journey. And so much of who I was was wrapped up in who Andrew was because he was the lead pastor of our church because our lives revolved around Sundays, revolved around Andrew, everything was working towards Sunday. He was larger than life, he had a big personality, he was very charismatic, he was very intense, very driven. And there really wasn’t a lot of room for my dreams or ambitions or ideas in a marriage with Andrew. And so, I let go of a lot of that. And that was hard, when we were married, letting go and making peace with like, “Okay, this is what my life is going to look like and this maybe isn’t what I thought it was going to look like, but this is beautiful too and I can find purpose and meaning here too.” And I did, I found purpose and meaning in the Women’s Ministry and serving in the Mom’s Ministry and then also just serving Andrew.
And I was an excellent pastor’s wife. I mean, I really truly was an excellent pastor’s wife and was there in the front row every single Sunday that he was preaching, had our three boys with their hair done, ready to go, got there early, got them checked in and I would bring him lunch, in between services I would have dinner ready for him when he got home. Very intentional. I woke up at 4:30 every morning to spend time on my own with my Bible and reading and journaling and exercise so that the house could be peaceful and I could be ready for the kids when they woke up. If that’s what I was going to be called to do for the rest of my life, I was going to do it well. And I found purpose and meaning within it and it was beautiful.
And there was a lot of sacrifice, a ton of sacrifice in that marriage as well. A lot of sacrifice of self, of sense of self in order to do this, what felt like this bigger calling, this bigger mission, this calling that was bigger than both me and Andrew leading a local church, doing the work of God. It’s so interesting when your career and your spiritual life collide and it was just like we were serving together this thing that was so much bigger than us and that felt like such a huge honor to be able to do that with him, and I was so honored to be his wife and so proud.
After he passed away, I had a friend over and we were packing up my house and I was crying and I said to her, “It feels like I’m packing up my pride,” because I was so proud of my life. I was so proud of the life that we had built together. And so after he passed away, it really was this unraveling of, okay, if Andrew’s not here anymore, if Andrew isn’t leading and driving our family, I kind of describe it like Andrew was in the driver’s seat and I was in the passenger seat and I was just along for the ride and there to support him however I could and take care of our kids however I could. And after Andrew passed away, life invited me to slide into the driver’s seat. And here I am, 29 years old in the driver’s seat with these three little boys in the backseat. And I’m looking across the horizon and I’m wondering, “Where in the world am I going?” And I have three boys that are sitting in the backseat asking me too, “Mommy, where are we going next?”
And so it’s been an adventure trying to answer that question. It’s been an adventure unraveling my identity and asking myself, who am I now? And also asking myself, who do I want to become? And it’s taken an awakening of some of the interests and hobbies and passions that I had before I was married. It’s been going back to, what are those things that bring me life? What are those things that I like to do? What are those passions and gifts? What’s my calling apart from Andrew? What am I called to do? And it’s been really fun just to get super curious about the answers to that question. And what I’ve realized too in this season of life is that to be human is to step in and out of a hundred different versions of self. And the person that I was when I married Andrew was a completely different person than I was leading up to the months when Andrew died.
And the person I am today is a completely different person than I was when Andrew passed away. And the person I’ll be in five, 10 years is a completely different person than I am today. And so, what’s been super helpful for me in this season of life is to consider that future self, consider that future version of myself and get really curious about who they are, where they are, who’s by their side, what do they have in their hands, what is the work that they are pouring their life into, and then working towards those goals and beginning to dream beyond the destruction of my reality and taking action on some of those dreams and making some big moves and pushing through fear. I think a lot of it is fear. I think a lot of us can get in rebuilding journey and our healing journey, I’m sure you experience this too with your loss, we can get stuck in a cycle of fear, and fear can really stop us from being able to move forward, from being able to rebuild a life that’s beautiful.
And so, it’s taken an embrace of even the fear, an embrace of willing to work through the fear and push through the fear to step into the realized dreams to, for me, an actual physical move has been a huge part of our healing journey. And I physically moved an hour towards the coast. We live just by the beach now, but an hour towards the coast from where we lived before in order to have a fresh start, in order to take back the power of our story. Where we lived, the church was pretty large, the church is about 4,000 people. And my boys were going to a private Christian school. And so a lot of the staff and a lot of the families went to our church and knew my husband and I felt like all they saw when they saw me was the grieving widow.
And I thought for my boys, if we stay here, we had a great home, it’s a great school, it would’ve been fine. But I was really curious, what would life look like if we left? What would life look like if we chose to have a fresh start? And so, we did, we moved. And really what I realized when we moved is that we took back the power of our story and now we get to tell our story on our own terms to who we want, when we want, how we want. And we get to write a whole new story too. We get to make new friends and find new community and discover who we are here in this new city, in this new community, in this new life.
So talk about how you took some of those first steps into feeling to use your words that you’re worthy of the beautiful gift of love and began to just find a purpose and identity for Kayla.
Yeah. To go from the safety and covering of a marriage and a worn in love that I shared with Andrew. It’s like we had been through so much together that we had this worn in comfortable love. And then all of a sudden, overnight becoming a single mom and widow, it’s been a journey of answering that question for myself and asking myself, Am I worthy of love? What does love look like here? And knowing that first and foremost, I’m deeply loved by God and that God has taken care of us and continues to take care of us and provide for us, and he has every single step of the way. And then getting curious, what does love look like here? And not just romantic love, it’s like how do I find that intimacy and that connection and friendships with others and community has been a huge part and allowing others to love me, allowing others to share in my pain has been huge for my healing.
I’ll never forget, there was a moment that I had with one of my best friends just a few weeks after Andrew had passed away. She was over at my house and I had just got done putting the kids to bed and I came out to the living room and I just totally collapsed on the floor. And she came over and she just laid on top of me and wept with me. And I allowed her to love me in that moment. I allowed her to love me without words and to share in my pain without words and just to be with me. And I think sometimes our pain can isolate us from that love if we allow it to. Our pain can totally make us feel like we’re left out or we’re unworthy or we’re less than. And some of us end up in a rebuilding beautiful journey and we feel like it’s our fault.
We feel like it was a series of poor life choices or bad decisions or bad business deals or whatever it may be. We may think that we ended up here and it’s our fault and we can get stuck in that sinkhole of shame and pain and feeling totally unworthy of even of a new kind of beautiful life. And so, it has taken us to curiosity of what does love look like here and how do I allow God’s love in? How do I allow the love of others in? And even for me too, what does romantic love look like here? Do I want that? And getting really curious of do I want that? What does that look like? And I’ve explored that a bit. I talked about it in the book a bit about going on dates and trying to figure that out and navigate that.
And it’s a really strange reality to be 30 years old with three little kids and find myself on dating apps again, what does that even look like here? But I know considering my future self and considering 45, 55, 65 year old Kayla and how proud she would be of I’m 33 today, a 33 year old Kayla, and her willingness to show up and try, her willingness to show up for those dates or show up and try to write the book or show up and try to live in the new city and show up and try to make new friends.
I know that 65, 75, 85 year old Kayla will be so proud of 33 year old Kayla for being willing to show up and try. And I think that’s what it takes to rebuild a new beautiful life. It’s just being willing to show up and try and try the best that we can to make lemonade out of lemons and to create something that’s beautiful again in it’s own unique way. It’s never going to be the same beautiful that it was before, my life is never going to resemble the exact same beauty as it did before, but beauty is still possible and it just looks completely different than it did. And making peace with that and finding my home here. And what does that look like here? And I’m still answering that question.
I’m going to pull a phrase from this prep sheet that you filled out. And it was funny because you sent it to me like 15 minutes before we started and they’re like, “Oh, I’m a little late.” I’m like, “No, you hit deadline, you’re fine. Everything’s good.” And now we’re going to use it. So for sure it’s actually good that you filled it out and you hit deadline, but you say this and it sums up a lot of what you’ve been saying in the last five minutes or so, we ask a question of what advice would you give someone who’s gone through a painful loss, what we call a crucible experience. And the first half of what you say is really all you need to say. And you say, “Allow the crucible to be your greatest teacher.” And that’s really what you’ve just described there, you allowed that crucible experience and what you learned from it to teach you some things about how you then moved forward beyond that crucible, didn’t you?
My pain has been one of the greatest teachers of my life and continues to be one of the greatest teachers of my life. And I would’ve never asked for it or wanted it or signed up for it. But because I’ve surrendered to it, it really truly has transformed me into a completely different person than I was before Andrew died, and it’s given me eyes to see humanity and eyes to see the world in a completely different way than I could before. And I’m so grateful for the lessons that I’ve learned from my pain and for the wisdom that I’ve gained from my pain and for the life experience that I’ve had and the way that I can love and lean in with other people that are walking through difficult situations in ways that I would’ve never been able to lean in before. So it truly can, I really truly believe for all of us, no matter what that pain may be, it can be one of greatest teachers of our lives if we allow it in and we allow it to transform us.
And I love what you just said about just using your crucible in service of others with now your second book and you speak, and I love that phrase, “Choose your own adventure.” So as you talk about the adventure that Kayla Stoecklein is in, a lot of life you didn’t choose, but now you’re in a place where you didn’t choose the past, you didn’t choose the loss, but you’re choosing your own adventure, what’s the adventure that you are choosing?
Yeah, I had this moment when I made that big move to the coast and I was standing in my living room and I had the Christmas tree on in the corner and the fire going in the fireplace, and I had just got done putting the boys to bed, and I had that moment where I realized I was standing in a life that I chose. It was the first time in the last few years that I had been walking through this really intense grief and pain, that for the first time it felt like I was standing in a life I chose. And it was so empowering that it brought me to tears. And I was standing in my living room weeping, I can’t believe that this really horrible, terrible thing happened and I can’t believe how beautiful and meaningful and wonderful my life is too.
And that’s the duality of walking through something like this. It’s like you learn to hold the joy in one hand and you learn to hold the sorrow in the other hand and moving forward is embracing both. And so, I think that choosing my own adventure today is making new memories with my boys, spending as much time possible with my boys because they’re growing up so fast. My oldest is turning 10 next month and my others are eight and six, and I’m just watching them get taller and their voices get deeper and they’re getting so handsome and big and I’m realizing how fleeting it all is. So I think my adventure is right in front of me, it’s my kids and this season of life and trying to soak it up as much as I possibly can and leaning into this work that I’ve been invited into as well, and sharing my story and talking about my pain.
And I’m really excited for this next season because I’m going to be taking a sabbatical that I haven’t stopped to rest in the last four years. And so, my next adventure is going to be a sabbatical and truly taking a break and giving myself a bit of respite. Because, for me, I think what I’ve realized is I can’t keep reliving my trauma and I can’t keep talking about my pain if I’m going to move forward, and I need to give myself a break from doing that. So I’m really excited. And I think rest is spiritual, rest is talked about all throughout scripture, even God rested when He made the world, and it’s such an important rhythm of life. So super excited for that adventure. I’m taking a whole year off next year.
As you look at what’s happened to you, this terrible, I don’t know if it’s C.S. Lewis, somebody talked about hard joy. I wish I could think of who said that, but what you’ve gone through is so unspeakably tough, how could anybody survive it, but you’ve managed to. I mean, you’re living really a life of significance, which we call a life on purpose, dedicated to serving others. You do that every day with your role model and you speak, and even if you take a sabbatical, your books are still out there, it’s going to be helping people. So as you just sum up the trajectory of your life from your loss, how would you talk about what we call your life of significance? You’ve turned that pain to me into a life of significance, a massive life of significance, how would you describe that in your own words?
I think I’m just so grateful to be a part of any of it and to know that I play a small part in a much bigger story and that my life is a life of service and that really my loss has taught me to hold loosely to everything. And so, it’s said, “Living with unclenched hands, living in surrender, not clinging too tightly to anything,” and just being so grateful for the work that I have in front of me today and knowing that it might be completely different than the work that I have in front of me tomorrow. And just trying to stay as present as possible as I can to the moment, to the calling, to the work, whether it be sitting with my boys at the skate park or sitting at the beach staring at the ocean or going on a walk with a friend or showing up for a conversation like this. I’m just so grateful to be a part of it and to have a small role to play in the much greater story that God is writing.
Listeners who have been through the 140 some episodes before this one are accustomed to me being a little bit more of a busy body in a conversation than I’ve been in this one. But I wanted to make sure, Warwick, that you had a chance to truly ask all your questions, but you did raise the idea of we’re getting close to the end. So that’s my cue to jump in for you, Kayla, and say, how can listeners who have been impacted, who have been touched by what you’ve talked about, how can they find out more about you? How can they get your books? How can they learn more about you and your journey?
Yeah. I’m most active on social media on Instagram. My Instagram handle is Kaylasteck and my website is kaylastoecklein.com, and my book is on Amazon, Barnes & Noble. A lot of those places, wherever you like to buy books and also Audible, I was able to record both the audiobooks for both Fear Gone Wild and Rebuilding Beautiful. So, that was such a great joy.
And as a guy whose last name is Schneeberger and nobody knows how to spell it, how can people spell Stoecklein so they can find you online?
Yes, it’s S-T-O-E-C-K-L-E-I-N.
And Kayla with a?
There you go. Warwick, I suspect you may have another question or two, and I will leave that to you before I close.
So what you’re doing in taking a sabbatical, your boys are young, but you could be around the world giving all sorts of talks, having a big impact. And I’m not telling you what to do, maybe I am, but I’m all for, it’s like evangelism begins at home as they say. It’s like what will it profit the world if you’re running around speaking everywhere and ignoring your voice. Not that you ever would, but it could be tempting like, “I could do so much good.” But I think God wants us the ministry at home is just as important as the other works. I applaud you for what you’re doing and it’s all of service, it’s all of significance, not just what people see. So I don’t know whether that’s a question or an admonition or a commendation for what you’re doing, but any final thoughts as we close here?
Thank you. No, no, just thank you so much for having me, and it’s been such an honor to be here and to chat with you guys. Thank you. And thank you for the encouragement, it means a lot.
Well, I will have a final thought, but it’s not going to be long, listeners, so don’t worry. And it’s not going to be me, it’s going to be, I like Warwick, have about 150 sheets of paper in which I’ve taken notes on things that Kayla has written or said. And I’m going to leave you, listener, with one of the things that she’s written in her book, and I want you to really listen to it because what we’ve just talked about for the last hour or so is a very painful and very dramatic loss. The series is called Gaining from Loss, and Kayla has made a, I’ll say it, profound case for what she’s gained from her loss. But we’re aware the losses that the vast majority, we hope, who are listening have experienced, have not been as dramatic. They’re still painful and they’re still losses and they’re still grapefruit to pull from this conversation with Kayla Stoecklein.
And I’m going to leave you with some words that Kayla wrote in her book that you can apply to your own life regardless of the nature of the circumstances of your loss. This is what Kayla wrote, “In the aftermath of a loss, we don’t have to stay camped out in the cemetery. A beautiful world waits for us on the other side of a loss, a world so expansive, it has room for our pain.” Well, I do have a microphone, but it’s an expensive one, I’m not going to drop it. But that is indeed a mic drop moment from our guest, Kayla Stoecklein. So until next time, listeners, thank you for spending time with us and we will see you next week.