The Boston bombing's forgotten victim

MATTHEW HALL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Tripathi family sorts their collection of more than 800 images, sent via social media, of people offering support after Sunil's death.
MATTHEW HALL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Tripathi family sorts their collection of more than 800 images, sent via social media, of people offering support after Sunil's death.
Posted: April 30, 2014

WHEN BOMBS shook the air and shattered bone last year in Boston, the Tripathi family of Bryn Mawr was in the middle of their worst nightmare.

Akhil and Judy Tripathi and their daughter and son, Sangeeta and Ravi, put careers, medical school and their everyday lives on hold when Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, the baby of the family who had a ready smile, disappeared in Providence, R.I.

That was shortly after March 16, 2013. They spent weeks looking for "Sunny," 22, who had been suffering from depression for several years.

The Tripathis' nightmare took a turn into the international spotlight after Sunil was briefly and mistakenly named as a suspect in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing by wannabe detectives on the Internet.

The tide of media coverage only ebbed after Sunil's body was found in the Providence River on April 23, 2013, and identified two days later.

The Tripathis were left to grapple with their grief, a family of five trying to move forward as a family of four.

During an interview at their home last week, the Tripathis said Sunny's strange part in a complicated story doesn't change the simple universal lesson they learned. Strangers shared their own heartache during their long search, along with random hugs from police officers and hardware store employees, and pictures of support from around the globe.

That's the story they want to tell.

"It was about us four, but it was also about a much larger group of people," said Sangeeta Tripathi, Sunny's sister, who's about 30 and was the engine that kept the family's efforts organized and moving in Providence.

The lessons the Tripathis learned aren't new, the family said, but they're often forgotten as we hustle through our lives. That's why the Tripathis agreed to speak out a year after their search ended.

"My hope is that everyone can find a new awareness of our vulnerability and our interconnectedness," Sangeeta said. "A lot of us are vulnerable. A lot of us need a hand here and there, and whether you're the receiver of the hand, the giver, or both, there's a role each of us have in being gentler to our more vulnerable people."

The Tripathis hadn't really discussed the anniversary much, together, before they sat down at a table in their sunroom, surrounded by dozens of pictures of Sunny and the strangers who sent their support.

Sunny's father, Akhil, was mostly silent, shuffling through hundreds of pictures of hands with hopeful messages written on them. "Come Back," one read. "You are loved," read another. Akhil spent the most time with Sunny before his suicide, weekends at Brown where he tried to help his youngest child foresee a future.

"I spent a lot of weekends with him, doing things together," he said. "I had no idea. I had absolutely no idea that he was where he was."

Ravi, a 27-year-old medical student at Temple, spoke slowly and softly about his brother, remembering how popular, outgoing and active Sunny was before depression crept in.

"Sunil was such a kind and gentle person, such a caring person and hopefully people hearing his story will learn that mental health can affect lots of people," he said. "He was very engaged. So the transformation from that person to the person he was was marked."

Unless friends, family and co-workers reach out, Ravi said it's too easy for people with mental-health issues to "disappear and fade away."

Suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death in America in 2010, according to statistics on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's website, with one person taking his own life every 13.7 seconds that year. Depression and other mental-health issues are listed as the top risk factors for suicide, and warning signs include certain words, such as "burden," and talk of suicidal feelings and specific plans.

Those statistics and a strategy to make Sunny's story matter keep Sangeeta focused, she said, as she cradled a large cup of Wawa coffee in her hand. It was Sangeeta and Ravi who kick-started the aggressive search for Sunny, reaching out to police and officials at Brown and in Providence as well as getting his name out in the media and on social media, including the "Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi" Facebook page.

"There are so many families and kids who are suffering. Sunny's story is just one of them," she said.

Sangeeta said she's kept most of her "emotional terrain" to herself, although a certain stretch of her brother's disappearance still stings. On the morning of April 19, online speculation that Sunil bore a resemblance to Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev morphed into bold mistakes, spread on sites such as Reddit and Twitter.

Eventually, Sunny's name was tweeted and re-tweeted and as it trickled up, news vans began to line up along the Tripathis' street in Bryn Mawr.

"All of this was just noise, noise that just got louder because it kept bouncing off itself," Sangeeta said. "It's really crazy that someone sitting in their pajamas somewhere can start a chain that can get the media, traditional media that should have a certain amount of fact-checking, all really riled up."

The family's aggressiveness kicked in before Sunny disappeared, too, Sangeeta pointed out, as they all tried to understand his depression and help him handle it. They brainstormed with psychiatrists, contemplated interventions, enlisted the help of family in New England and urged Sunny to seek professional help.

The Tripathis are taking part in a documentary about mental illness and hoping that mental-health screening becomes part of every college student's academic year. In June, they will take part in the AFSP's "Out of the Darkness" walk, an overnight fund-raiser to help promote suicide awareness that's open to the public and only being held in Philadelphia and Seattle this year.

Judy Tripathi's emotional terrain was visible in her trembling hands and her wavering voice when she spoke of Sunny. She more than anyone has felt the power of a stranger's empathy, hugs from people who could sense she needed them.

"This happened all the time," she said. "In an instant, you connect with with someone. It helped increase my faith in people."

When Judy seemed overcome with emotion, Ravi reached out and held her hand and Sangeeta and Akhil offered more words about Sunny to fill the space. They remain a family of five, they said, and even larger on any given day, when something unexpected reminds them they're not alone.

"The end of our story is not the end of everyone else's story," Judy said. "If someone hears our story, it could make a difference. You never know what speaks to someone."

On Twitter: @JasonNark

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