Kayla Stoecklein, the widow of California Pastor Andrew Stoecklein has spoken out in the first interview given since her husband’s untimely death. Andrew, the senior pastor at Inland Hills Church in Chino, California, died August 25 after attempting suicide the day before.
In the few months that have elapsed since Andrew’s death, Kayla has written candidly about her process of grief on her website, GodsGotThis.org. Openly describing her husband’s period of severe mental illness that preceded his death, Stoecklein has sought to shine a light on the epidemic of emotional distress that is prevalent in our churches and wider society.
“He was sick,” she wrote of her husband in a post to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day. “His mind was overtaken by mental illness, spiritual warfare, and a series of unfortunate circumstances that caused him to lose control of his own thoughts and actions. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around what that must have felt like.”
“He was an honorable man,” she said, “and his death is tragic.”
In a bid to bring more awareness to his ghastly plight of mental illness, and to honor her husband’s life and ministry, Kayla took the courageous step of featuring on a Facebook Live interview with well-known Christian author and Proverbs 31 Ministries President, Lysa TerKeurst. TerKeurst herself has been subject to her own set of tragic circumstances in recent times. Last year, she openly announced that she had became divorced from her husband of 25 years after he had been “repeatedly unfaithful” to her. In addition, she also faced serious health problems, undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Certainly, the two new friends know the depths of heartache and loss, and it made for a compelling discussion.
Going back to a year ago, Kayla recalled the onset of Andrew’s panic attacks and described how she and her family attempted to deal with this excruciating new reality.
“He was having panic attacks two or three times a week,” she explained. Stoecklein noted that they first thought that Andrew’s emotional ill-health was “as a result of hyper thyroid,” but, after bloodwork was taken, this diagnosis was thrown out.
The panic attacks, Kayla said, were “brutal.”
“One Sunday, a security guard found him upstairs in the bathroom having such a bad panic attack, right before the Easter services,” explained the mother-of-three. “He was meant to give seven sermons. He ended up making it, he spoke the next weekend, but then the following week he ended up in the hospital.”
Soon, Kayla realized that the “panic attacks weren’t going away. And it wasn’t hyperthyroid.”
“What on earth was going on?” she asked.
Stoecklein went on to explain that Andrew had stepped into the role of lead pastor following the 2015 death of his father and Inland Hills’ founding pastor, David Stoecklein, who passed aged 55 after a battle with cancer.
“He had never taken a break,” Kayla said. “He was running fast for seven years and never took time to grieve or process. We just thought he was tired.”
Finally, they received a diagnosis: “Your husband has depression,” the psychiatrist said. “I was stunned and scared,” Kayla recalled, noting that following this, Andrew was placed on a “forced sabbatical.”
“It was very unpredictable,” she said of his illness. “I didn’t know who I was gonna get when he walked down the hall in the morning. Was he gonna be mad? Was he gonna be crying? Was he gonna be angry? I had to tiptoe around that. And I had my three little boys at home, too.”
“I had only seen him cry a handful of times and he was crying all the time. He was in his bedroom all the time, isolating himself.”
The doctors told Kayla that it was a “seasonal depression,” and that Andrew would recover in a couple months. So, the couple embarked on a regimented treatment plan.
“We were doing everything right,” Kayla said, noting that Andrew was going to regular therapy. “We went on a trip just the two of us. He went on trips by himself. He went and stayed with a mentor for a whole week. The doctors felt that he was better.”
In August, Andrew went returned to work and was met with a rousing reception from his congregation.
“I went on stage with him,” Kayla explained. “People gave him a standing ovation. They were so pumped he was back.”
On that Sunday, barely two weeks before he died, Andrew disclosed a lot of information about his personal struggles.
He explained that after his father’s death, despite the Church “thriving, growing and moving,” he was “crumbling, exhausted, weak and tired.” The church leader then revealed that his family was fighting attack on another front; they were being stalked. Not only this, but the person who had been harassing him and his family online actually “showed up to his house,” subsequently forcing them to move, and causing Drew to unravel psychologically.
“We have several stalkers,” Stoecklein explained. “This individual showed up and was pretty dangerous. We had to take some serious measures. It caused us to sell our home, and our mom to sell her home. We purchased a place together. When he showed up, it really began this downward spiral.”
Join me now for a special Facebook Live with my friend Kayla Stoecklein. I’m so thankful for Kayla’s bravery and willingness to share her story with us all. It’s a story she never thought she would be living – one that unexpectedly left her a widow and a single mom overnight.If you're struggling with the fact that your life doesn't look the way you thought it would, I truly hope you'll take a few minutes to be with us today.Order your copy of “It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way” here: www.ItsNotSupposedToBeThisWay.com Hear from Kayla here: www.GodsGotThis.org
Posted by Lysa TerKeurst on Wednesday, November 28, 2018
By all accounts, Andrew’s honesty hit home with his church family. “People were so receptive to it,” Kayla said of her husband’s final sermons. “He gave out the suicide hotline number. He was being very open and the church needed to hear it because a lot of people suffer in silence.”
Bravely, Kayla then discussed the circumstances that surrounded Pastor Drew’s tragic death. “He was going into the third week, he already had his message prepared and was feeling good about the weekend. He went into the office Thursday and had a really bad day.”
View this post on Instagram
To my Smith, . You made me a mom, and today you turned six! The last six years with you have been a precious gift. Your strong will, brilliant mind, constant curiosity, and faithful heart have given me a new lens in which to see the world. Thank you for teaching me more about life than any professor, counselor, or friend ever has. It is my complete honor and joy to be your mom. . No child should ever have to endure the pain you have gone through these last three months, but you have done it with courage and strength. I know these shaping moments, these deep valley experiences, are going to form you into a man of immense depth, compassion, and love for our beautifully broken world. Happy Birthday my boy, I love you just the way you are.
Kayla disclosed that there was “a trigger” for Drew’s sudden spiral, but did not specify what it was, simply stating that he was “never able to recover.”
“Friday morning we were all trying to get him help from a distance,” Kayla continued. “We were trying to give him space. I was on the phone calling inpatient places and talking to different pastors.”
“Unfortunately, while we were doing that was when he attempted suicide.”
Medics revived Andrew, but the subsequent test results “were bad,” Kayla said. “They put him on hospice support. On Saturday morning, they took him off life support and he was breathing on his own all day. Then, by the end of the day, as we walked out of the room so the nurses could do their job, he passed.”
View this post on Instagram
The boys loved to follow Drew around the house and “help” him with projects. I look all around me and can vividly remember sweet little scenes like this. Three little tool boxes and one patient loving father. . Their earthly dad is gone, but the patient loving father remains. He will be there for every project big or small. Lovingly watching over them and protecting them from harm. Just as their earthly father delighted in their work, their Heavenly Father will delight even more. . “To the fatherless He is a Father. To the widow He is a champion friend. To the lonely He makes them part of a family. To the prisoners He leads into prosperity until they sing for joy.” Psalms 68:5-6
Broken-hearted, Kayla said she wrote blogs in the aftermath of Andrew’s death as a way of saying goodbye and “honoring him” amid all the confusion, and assumptions from those who did not know him. Part of that respect, she said, was in attempting to explain who Andrew really was and that the suicide was “not his fault.”
“We don’t say he committed suicide. We say he ‘died by suicide,” she noted, alluding to the dreadful mental illness that led him to such a sudden death.
“We don’t believe it was a decision,” she continued. “We don’t know what was going on for him. It wasn’t him. He wasn’t capable of making a rational decision.”
“It wasn’t the Andrew that I knew and loved, and it wasn’t the Andrew that our church new and loved.”
Despite the searing loss, however, Kayla said that her hope in the Lord is stronger than ever as she continues to grieve, heal and push forward into the future He has for her family.
“God is still good,” she declared. “God still cares. God is still for me and God’s got this.”
Do continue to hold Kayla and her family in your prayers as they process this staggering loss.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with depression, thoughts of suicide, or you just need someone to talk to, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are looking for a counselor in your area, consult the Christian Counselors Network.