“COVID killed my son but not how you think,” says Brad Hunstable, who opens up to PEOPLE about his family's devastating loss

By Alexandra Rockey Fleming and Eileen Finan
May 03, 2021
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brad hunstable and his son hayden
Brad Hunstable and his son Hayden
| Credit: Courtesy Hunstable Family

Hayden Hunstable was a good friend and leader in his sixth-grade classroom. At 12 years old, he was cherished by his parents, grandparents and two sisters, who called him Bubba. He had a fire in his belly for football, loved to dance and offered up hugs when they were needed.

But on April 17, 2020, a beautiful, sunny Friday in Aledo, Texas, at the start of the mandated stay-at-home orders, Hayden hung himself in the closet of his bedroom. It was four days before his 13th birthday.

His dad, Brad Hunstable, believes Hayden's suicide was an impulsive response to a stream of circumstances.

"He wasn't a depressed kid," Hunstable, 42, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "He hated online school; he wasn't around his friends. He was bored."

Isolated and unable to hang out with friends due to quarantine restrictions, Hayden increasingly turned to another favorite pastime, playing Fortnite on his Xbox. His parents, aware of his frustration, relaxed their rules around his online time and bought him a new gaming monitor.

Now, when Hunstable searches for answers to his son's death, he thinks of the monitor, which, he later learned, his son accidentally broke just before his tragic death.

"Kids make more out of a situation than it is," Hunstable says. "They don't know the sun is going to come up tomorrow. In that second, you're overwhelmed with this sense of passion of sorts."

Many kids have felt the gut-punch of the pandemic. The proportion of mental-health-related ER visits for children ages 12 to 17 increased 31 percent compared with the previous year, while calls to suicide hotlines have skyrocketed since the pandemic began, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The tragic consequences of the hopelessness are all too familiar to Superintendent Jesus F. Jara of the Clark County School District in Nevada. There, 24 students have been lost to suicide since March 2020, compared with nine during the 2019-20 school year, according to Jara. The youngest victim was just 9 years old.

"Those were my kids. You lose sleep. You think, 'Am I doing enough?'" Jara says. "The focus was COVID, but I told the chief health officer we need to look at the mental health crisis too. I strongly believe the pandemic has caused some of these children to take their lives."

hayden hunstable and his sister
Hayden Hunstable with his sister Kinlee
| Credit: Courtesy Brad Hunstable

After Hayden's death, "I didn't know up from down, forward or backwards," says Hunstable. "Literally, you're in a fog."

In the days following, the family — Hunstable, Hayden's mom April, 39, and sisters Addy, 17, and Kinlee, 9 — stayed temporarily with Hunstable's parents, where they huddled by the campfire, "really grieving and crying and telling stories," says Hunstable.

One morning, two days after burying Hayden, Hunstable was outside, cardinals chirping in the warm sun, and "I just felt like I needed to share my thoughts," he says. He turned on his iPhone and began recording.

"COVID killed my son but not how you think," he said in the video, which he posted online. "I believe my son would be alive today if he had been in school."

But, he continued, "I don't want his memory to be the last mistake he made. I want his memory to be that he made a big difference in the world, he lit a flame, a spark around the world."

His heartbreaking video has since garnered more than 120 million views, and Hunstable says he has heard from people around the globe.

"The stories I get would just blow your mind," Hunstable says. "People pour their hearts out about suicide and how no one talks about it. People just sweep it under the rug. And so that was the point, that maybe we have a platform and maybe this was Hayden's mission."

In the year since Hayden died, his family founded Hayden's Corner, a nonprofit dedicated to educating parents and kids about mental health. Hunstable has made it his goal to encourage parents to discuss suicide with their children — "because not talking about it gets people killed."

"We didn't have that conversation with Hayden," he adds. "And we loved him every day."

Through Hayden's Corner, the Hunstables produced a short documentary, Almost Thirteen, that shares their story and started a PSA campaign around the slogan #ConversationsMatter. They've also suggested a national mandate requiring emotional- and social-resilience classes in elementary and secondary school curricula.

These aren't topics Hunstable ever envisioned himself exploring. A West Point grad who cofounded video-stream pioneer Ustream and who now owns a smart-electric motor company, his days used to be spent running full tilt as a CEO. But, he says,"the old Brad — that person died and I'm a different person completely. A journey through pain and tragedy can produce growth." 

He says that he's striving to develop a relationship with Hayden, even in death, that's powerful.

"I still talk to him and pray," he says. "Even if there's nothing there — and I don't know what's there. You know, whether people believe in God or not is really not my concern. I'm going to choose the belief because that's the only chance I have to see my son again, and be sane, frankly. That hope is important."

That hope is alive when he contemplates spending time with his son again.

"We'd play football, play some catch," Hunstable says. "We'd eat some wings. I'd kick his butt first, wrestle with him and tickle the heck out of him. And you know, just look at him, just watch him, and smile."

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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This story originally appeared on people.com