Editor’s note: Kayla Stoecklein is a voice of compassion and hope for those oppressed with the mostly-taboo topic of suicide. It’s a delicate issue, one haunted by shame and fear, and one that needs to be brought into the light of God’s grace. In Fear Gone Wild, Kayla shares her and Andrew’s story but above all, she shares the story of divine grace. Truly, as Andrew said over and over again, “God’s got this.”
To my Andrew,
Today marks one week since that tragic morning. The darkest week of my life. The emotions that I have faced this week have crushed me: mind, body, and soul. The gaping hole I feel inside now that you are gone is suffocating. Oh, how I long to be with you right now. I would give anything just to cuddle up into your chest and hold you again.
The last few days have been incredibly difficult. There are countless decisions that need to be made to honor you and put your body to rest. What will you wear? What type of casket will you lie in? How will we pay for it? What location will be best? Do we buy 1 plot or 2? Who will speak at the service? These are questions we shouldn’t be facing. These are questions I was supposed to answer 50 years from now when I am old and grey. How do I do this without you? Why are you gone so soon? How do I tell the boys?
Today we walked the cemetery. It was surreal. Overwhelming and peaceful at the same time. We felt a small kiss from God when He graciously provided a place for you right next to your dad. Now every time we visit, we can remember you both and imagine the joy you must feel now you are together.
Tomorrow I will tell the boys. The life they once knew will never be the same. The dreams they had with you are gone, just like mine. The daily routines, the daddy dates, the donut runs and the soccer games now distinctly different than before. The house will be quieter, lonelier, and duller without you. You filled our house with joy. You filled our home with fun and laughter that only comes from a dad. You knew how to crack just the right joke to cheer me up when life felt overwhelming. I miss you so much, Andrew, every single part.
I hate the loss and the pain, but there is nothing I can do to change it. There is nothing I can do to bring you back, so I will choose to lean [on] God. The stories flooding in are lifting me up and holding me up. The life change that is happening only comes from God because He promises to work all things together for good. Even this.
Your story, your life and your death, is opening the door for conversations all around the world. Your story is helping people to share their hidden thoughts and secret struggles with their family and friends. Your story is paving the way for an even bigger conversation about how the Church can better come alongside people with mental illness, including pastors. God is using your story and this tragedy to do miracles in the lives of other people. As much as I don’t want to, I can’t help but see God’s hand in all of this.
My mind keeps wandering back to the last message you gave, titled “Mess to Masterpiece.” Just as you told the church about how God will meet them in their mess, I believe God is meeting us, right here, right now, in this mess. And my prayer today in my darkest hour is, “Heavenly Father, complete the work You’ve begun in me.”
Only God can turn the greatest tragedy in my life into triumph.
I love you and I miss you with every piece of me,
I sat cold and numb in a small office at the private, tree-lined cemetery. I’d heard the words, but my mind couldn’t process them. “One plot or two?” Faced with a decision beyond the realm of possibility, I cried. How am I supposed to continue living when the love of my life is gone?
“You’re young,” the cemetery manager said. I was twenty-nine years old and picking out a plot for my husband. My beautiful husband who was so full of life. My husband who, as he lay dying in the hospital, still looked perfect to me. I needed to escape the moment; it was too much for my brain to process, for my heart to handle, and for my mind to comprehend. So I closed my eyes and went back to the hospital room, to the last time I felt his warmth.
From the top of his head down to the bottoms of his feet, I knew him so well, and I loved every part of him. His big blue eyes, his long eyelashes, his thick brown hair, his strong arms and shoulders, his tattoos; I loved his tattoos. My mind stopped at a single tattoo he had on his arm, Paul’s powerful words from Philippians 1:21:
To live is Christ and to die is gain.
Why did Andrew love that verse enough to get it permanently etched onto his arm? Why did it mean so much to him? What did it mean, anyway? This didn’t feel like gain. It only felt like loss and pain. What did Paul mean when he penned these words thousands of years ago?
In his letter to Philippi, Paul said:
I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. — Philippians 1:18-26 ESV, emphasis mine)
It’s the tug-of-war of life, isn’t it? The push and pull between the here and now and the yet to come. The desire to live our one life fully is muddled with the desire to depart from this place of dark- ness and pain. When we lose someone we love, there are moments where the choice to stay and live is easy, but there are equally dark moments where we are left wondering, What’s the point, anyway? Remaining in the flesh becomes, in Paul’s words, “necessary.”
“Hard pressed between the two” — that’s how grief feels. That’s how I felt at the cemetery picking out a plot for Andrew. One plot or two: an impossible decision with a long life ahead of me and countless questions racing through my mind. Will I be one of the lucky ones who finds love again, or will Andrew always be my one and only? How do I make this decision now? Why him, why me, why my family? One plot or two?
To live is Christ and to die is gain. The words echoed in my mind. To live. The choice to live was my only choice, and it’s the bravest choice I’ve ever made. “One plot is all we need,” I whispered under my breath. I then excused myself from the office. I knew Andrew wouldn’t want me to give up now; I knew he hadn’t wanted to die, but to live. I knew his death meant gain for him, even if it stripped everything from me. While he was rejoicing in eternity, I walked slowly through the tall trees of the cemetery to see the place where his body would be laid to rest. Tears rolled down my cheeks relentlessly. I was alive, but barely. I hadn’t eaten in days, so my clothes draped loosely over my thin frame. I stood in the warm sun on the green grass near his little plot and thought about my choice to live.
To live for Christ, for Him and His glory. To live for my Andrew, to honor his name. To live for my boys; they needed me now. To live for my future; it needed me too.
To live because life is worth living.
To live is to suffer; it’s part of being human. No one is exempt from the brokenness of this place; it touches all of us at some point. Although we would like it to be, life isn’t fair. We can go through life making all the right decisions, but bad things will still happen to us. It’s upside down, backward, and twisted. Bad things happen to seemingly good people all the time — cancer appears out of nowhere, babies are born without breath in their lungs, accidents happen in an instant. If I have learned anything from the loss of Andrew it’s that our bodies are fragile. It’s an absolute miracle that we live as long as we do. We are all just an inch, an accident, an illness, a misstep away from death. So how do we live? How do we live beyond the suffering?
“To live is Christ.”
To live fully dependent on Christ — that’s the secret to living beyond the suffering. It’s a secret Paul knew all too well because he had experienced hell on earth over and over again. Paul was able to discover joy in the pain, joy in the prison, joy in the impossible situation, only with Christ.
I always knew God, but I didn’t know how much I needed Him until I lost Andrew. In losing Andrew I gained a whole new dependence on Christ. I couldn’t survive the loss or overcome the pain without Him.
When I couldn’t eat, He gave me sustenance.
When I couldn’t see the next step, He paved the way.
When everything looked blurry and I couldn’t make decisions, He gave me clarity.
When I couldn’t stop crying, He held me in his arms.
When I didn’t want to live, He gave me reasons to stay.
I lost Andrew, but I gained spiritual depth.
I lost Andrew, but I gained perspective.
I lost Andrew, but I gained wisdom.
I lost Andrew, but I gained a new life.
It was a new life I didn’t want. No matter how many times I tried to go back, the only way forward was forward. I continued to process my grief out loud through blogs, and I buried myself in books and therapy. I will never forget a saying my counselor shared in one of our first sessions following Andrew’s death: “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust our sails.” What happened to Andrew, what happened to us, was out of my control. I didn’t choose this, I didn’t choose loss, but I did have the opportunity to choose how I would respond. The harsh reality, I learned early on, is loss requires adjusting.
After Andrew died, everything had to be reexamined. I realized the house we lived in wouldn’t work anymore. It was too big, too much to manage on my own. So we packed up, moved out, and moved in with family. I was a stay-at-home mom, but I needed space to grieve and figure out what to do next. So I enrolled all three of the boys in school full-time. My identity as a pastor’s wife was stripped away when Andrew was, so I faced the decision either to stay in a church I loved and find a new way to fit in or walk away and find a new church home. I’d become a single mom overnight. This was the biggest challenge — raising three boys, ages two, four, and five — all on my own. It was daunting. Life would never be the same for me or my boys. We were forced to grapple with a new reality that we had never planned for.
This is still our life. We are always adjusting. Things happen all the time that are beyond the realm of our understanding. As hard as we try to control our lives, the truth is only God has the ultimate power over life and death. I have discovered through my grief and pain that the only way to live is in surrender.
To live is Christ, my life fully in His hands.
- Kayla Stoecklein, “Mess to Miracle,” God’s Got This (blog), August 31, 2018, https://www.godsgotthis.com/blog/mess-to-miracle-to-my-andrew-today-marks-one.
Excerpted with permission from Fear Gone Wild by Kayla Stoecklein, copyright Kayla Stoecklein.
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To live is Christ. Sometimes, friends, we have to choose to live beyond the suffering. Live beyond what is out of our control. Adjust our sails. Face the wind. And keep living in complete surrender to Jesus. Have you been there? Are you there now? I am. Come share with us on our blog. We want to hear from you. ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full