His children yelled out “I love you dad” from the first row. Approximately 1,300 people packed the Bayside Community Church and intently listened to every word he spoke.
“I’m going to own something before you right now,” he said. “And that is that last Sunday afternoon I accidentally shot and killed my boy. The sheriff’s department has called it a complete accident but as a gun owner and someone who knows how to handle these things, I know what happened and what should have happened. I will carry this till my dying day.”
On July 3, Clayton, 64, took three of children, David, 24, Stephen and Christen, 12, to the High Noon Gun Range to have some fun with his .22 semiautomatic pistol, but also to practice gun safety.
They all took turns shooting, but after Clayton fired a round, the hot shell casing struck the wall, causing it to deflect and fall down the back of his shirt. When he reflexively reached back to get it out, his gun, which he had inadvertently pointed behind his back, went off.
At first he thought the bullet went straight up but he soon realized that it actually hit Stephen directly in the neck.
Stephen died later at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
Keeping His Memory Alive
Clayton’s wife, Elizabeth, who harbors no anger towards her husband, wants to do everything in her power to keep her son’s memory alive.
“He has left a chasm Grand Canyon wide in this family that can’t be filled,” Elizabeth tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue.
“What a gift,” adds Elizabeth, 50. “Fourteen years of an utter gift. He was just a meteor. He couldn’t be contained. He was just the coolest.”
For more on the Brumby family tragedy, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands today.
Elizabeth homeschools all of her children, and says Stephen was the type of kid who was so smart he didn’t even have to study for tests, couldn’t sit still and was the first person she thought of when she needed help with something around the house.
“One of my favorite memories is him reading Tom Sawyer or something and he was skating around the ping pong table in the garage while he was reading. He just did everything in his own unique way,” she says.
Adds Clayton: “He just didn’t want to stop. He’d get home and say, ‘Dad, I’m going to take off for a fifteen minute bike ride.’ There was no one in this family that was brighter and we have seven bright children.”
His siblings David, Alexis, 23, Sam, 18, Christen, 12, Thomas, 11 and Jordan, 9, are all grieving in their own ways.
“I found a shirt in my room the other day completely torn. I thought, ‘How weird.’ I said to Sam, ‘What’s with this shirt?’ and he said, ‘Mom, that’s what I did when I got the news Stevie had died,'” Elizabeth recalls.
Christen, who is “extremely creative,” according to Elizabeth, and had to watch every moment of her brothers death, has started art therapy to work through the trauma of what she saw.
She has comforted Thomas with endless hugs and by telling him that they are all grieving together and that he’s not alone.
“I told him that this is all real and that he has access to me. I said, ‘You’re going to hug me, you’re going to see mommy cry and I’m going to grieve because I love your brother so much. Those great big loves means you hurt big, but we’re going to get through this together,” she says.
Elizabeth says Stephen was never moody and could play a song on the piano after listening to it just once. He was also extremely compassionate to Jordan, who has spina bifida, and is paralyzed from her waist down.
“He was so incredibly inventive, creative and such a genuinely friendly and outgoing person,” says Stephen’s older brother David, who shared a passion for music with him. “He was always making friends with someone new.”
Now, his drum set sits in his bedroom, a “Happy Birthday, Stephen” sign hangs on the wall and his clothing is still in his closet.
In the weeks following his death, his family hung his homemade bow and arrow on their living room wall.
“We’re trying to move forward and figure out what life looks like now,” Elizabeth says. “I don’t know how to live a day without Stevie.”
Community and Faith
Elizabeth and Clayton both say that three things have played a huge role in their ability to find the hope and strength amidst tragedy: Friends, family and faith.
Elizabeth’s friends arrived at the hospital as soon as they heard the news. They have been a rock of support ever since.
“They didn’t let me sob alone,” she says. “It takes courage to be with someone in that moment. To not be afraid to love at that moment, when I was at the most broken moment of my life.”
The Brumby children have been sleeping on blankets in the parents’ room; friends who have been over have slept on the couch.
“They pray over me and get me through one moment at a time until I come out of this fog and realize that this is my new reality,” says Elizabeth. “I can’t believe this is my life story.”
Support has come from strangers, too. A GoFundMe page was created for the family that has since raised over $37,800 dollars.
The older children, David and Alexis, adults who live on their own, haven’t left their parents’ side either.
Exactly one week after his death, on July 10, the Brumbys and their friends went to a local park at sundown to release night lanterns into the sky.
They sing songs on the guitar, pray, hold hands and remember their boy, who loved the park.
“We know we’ll see Stevie again,” says Elizabeth. “It’s not a goodbye.”