Walking in Strength, Grief and Vulnerability: Kayla Stoecklein on Being Public With Her Life and Story

Photography Provided By: Kayla Stoecklein

Photography Provided By: Kayla Stoecklein

On the morning of our interview, Kayla Stoecklein had already dropped her children off at school and was closing escrow on a new house. Her and her three growing boys, the oldest being 6 years old, will soon decorate a new space. Another “new” for the family since their life shifted over half a year ago. “I’m just a normal girl that this kind of just happened to,” Kayla says. “I was a pastor’s wife, stay at home mom and now I’m kind of stepping into this bigger calling in this season of grief and trying to help people.”

The bigger calling happened Aug. 24, 2018, when her husband Andrew Stoecklein died by suicide. Andrew was the lead pastor at Inland Hills Church in Chino, California, the same church his late father Dave Stoecklein founded and led until his death in 2015 after having leukemia. Andrew stepped into the role of lead pastor and preached for three years. Barely a week before his own death, he delivered his last message titled Mess to Masterpiece. The sermon was about his experiences with depression and anxiety and the importance of bringing it up in the church as a part of Andrew’s Hot Mess series.

“We were tucked away in a hospital room and I initially blasted out on social media just asking for prayer because (Andrew) was on life support and it wasn’t looking good,” Kayla says. After that first post, the Stoecklein’s life was being watched on a global scale. “The reason why it spread so far was that it was shocking,” Kayla says. “Here’s this young guy with this young family with three little boys. From the outside, it appears that he’s at the top of his game. He has the dream job, is living in a beautiful home, has a beautiful family —  he has everything he could ever want so why him? I think that’s why it just went so viral so fast.”

Three days after Andrew died,  Kayla posted to the family’s God’s Got This blog that was originally a used as a way to keep their church updated during her father-in-law’s absence from the church while he had leukemia. Titled To my Andrew, Kayla publicly said her goodbye. “I didn’t get to say goodbye,” Kayla says. “(The letter) was a way to get some closure for me and also a way to save his name and give people a little bit more of an inside look into what was going on. I didn’t want him to go down as the pastor who died by suicide, I wanted people to know Andrew for who he was and his life was not defined by how he died but it was defined by the way he lived.”

Living out what she describes as a tug a war of two extreme emotions of joyful moments and suffocating grief, Kayla and the Stoecklein family are leaning into God’s Got This both as a mantra and a movement to help others. “It’s really what we’re living,” Kayla says. “We could not do this without God. We couldn’t walk this out every single day in the trenches of grief, despair or in the deep dark valley. We shouldn’t be able to be getting out of bed in the morning but the only reason we can is because of God.” As a mom turned single parent and sole provider, Kayla says she has never felt as desperately dependent on God as she is now. “For me, God’s Got This is my daily reminder that no matter what I face, no matter what the grief feels like, no matter how dark the day, God’s with me.”

Fine-tuned with the new tagline “You Are Not Alone,” the Stoecklein family has transformed the original blog to a website and source of hope for those who are hurting, grieving or feel isolated. The revamp included a fresh look and new merchandise, something Kayla says Andrew was passionate about. “My husband always had this dream of having merchandise,” Kayla says. “He had ordered a ton of T-shirts and he would wear them around trying to figure out which one was the softest, the most comfortable, which one washed well, which one didn’t shrink.”

Since opening the shop, the Stoeckleins have packed and sent boxes of hoodies, T-shirts and wristbands to Hawaii, Florida, Ohio and several other states around the country. The revamped website also includes a resources page that includes different support sites for those who are facing everything from a cancer diagnosis to mental health issues and a section where people can share their own story. “We wanted to do this to cover some other things,” Kayla says.  “God’s Got This isn’t just about leukemia and it’s not just about suicide. God’s Got This is for anyone facing anything from tiny things to huge, life-altering things. It’s also an extension of Andrew and his heart and what he was passionate about. It is like a legacy for him and his dad. They truly did live that out and cared deeply about people, God and the church. This has been a really special way for us to honor both of them.”

The Stoecklein family.

The Stoecklein family.

The blog, which is currently written by Kayla and her mother-in-law houses personal posts about their journey through grief, seems like an extension of Kayla’s Instagram, where she openly processes the new parts of her life. “It’s been really natural. I don’t feel like I’m having to work that hard at it,” Kayla says. “One of my friends described it to me as saying, ‘You could have folded in and everyone would have understood but instead you folded out and you’re letting people into what’s going on in your little world.’ When I post things, write blogs or share things, it’s in the moment and something I feel God is pressing on me to share.”

With each blog or Instagram post, Kayla makes she continues to walk with vulnerability, a feeling she says is bizarre for her when considering the number of people who are tuned into her life. But just as much as it may seem bizarre it has been beneficial for Kayla and those who follow her. She says being open with her challenges and triumphs has allowed her to find purpose in her pain. “It’s been really powerful and beautiful to see how God has used this tragedy but that’s just what God does,” Kayla says. “God doesn’t waste pain. It’s important to me that I allow God to squeeze every last drop of good he can out of this. By sharing this belief is just one more way that God can do that. It’s helping all of us have a greater purpose. The pain is so overwhelming and confusing. But the legacy of God’s Got This and the shop and the words that God puts on our hearts to share, we’re just honored to be able to do that and we want to steward that well.”

As the Stoecklein family’s story and message spread, Kayla and her boys are enjoying what she describes as normal life stuff such as going to the beach, the gym and basketball games. Although each day brings its own excitement or darkness, she says she is leaning into the support of prayers, enjoying her glimpses of Andrew and chasing heaven. “I see him everywhere,” Kayla says. “I have very clear, vivid memories.  I can close my eyes and see his face and mannerisms and hear his voice. All my boys look like him. Andrew had piercing blue eyes and all my boys have bright, blue eyes. I also see him in the garage, packing the God’s Got This stuff and imagine him there with us cracking jokes and making it fun. I’ll be driving in my car and there will be a beautiful sunset happening out my window and I feel Andrew in that. I feel heaven in that and every single day I’m chasing those glimpses of heaven now that someone I love so much is there.”