Four months and 12 days after the death of her long-term partner, Chelsea Van Thof sat down and wrote to him.
“None of this is okay,” she wrote. “How do people do this? How do people go on living their lives? We should have moved to NH. We shouldn’t have come to DC. You would have been happier. We would have been closer to your family. There wouldn’t have been as many bridges to jump off of.”
On April 13, Dr. Peter Tripp, a 29-year-old veterinarian who made a career of taking care of animals and a habit of taking care of people, walked out of the couple’s Northwest Washington apartment to the nearby William Howard Taft Bridge and jumped to his death.
Since then, Van Thof, who is also a veterinarian, has been mourning his loss and fighting to keep more people from ending their lives in the same way. A website she created in his name contains a grief journal that offers intimate glimpses of the life they lived together and the one she is now living without him. It also details her push to bring more attention to the high suicide rate among veterinarians and her effort to get a suicide barrier added to Taft Bridge.
“After diplomat Ben Read successfully implemented a barrier on the Ellington Bridge in the wake of losing his daughter in 1986, the Taft was supposed to be next,” the website says. It then notes that the bridge “remains unprotected, to this day.”
Van Thof said she believes Tripp would still be alive if the bridge had a barrier.
“I know he would be here,” she said. “It would have cut though the impulse.”
In a Washington Post article that ran Wednesday about suicides at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, my colleague William Wan wrote: “Decades of research have shown nets and barriers to be the most effective measure against bridge suicides. Because of the impulsive nature of many suicides, taking away easy access drastically reduces deaths.”
“In 2003, Toronto erected barriers at its most lethal bridge, which averaged nine suicides a year. In the decade that followed, suicides dropped to almost zero,” the article reads. “When D.C. authorities installed fencing at the Duke Ellington Bridge, which crosses Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington, suicides decreased by 90 percent, and jumps at nearby bridges did not increase.”
Van Thof was on the Ellington Bridge when she learned that Tripp had jumped from the Taft Bridge, which carries Connecticut Avenue over Rock Creek and is located just blocks from their apartment. She had been sleeping and woke up to their Dalmatian, Hugo, barking. Minutes later, she received a concerning text from Tripp and went looking for him with a friend. They were searching within the radius where his phone last pinged when Van Thof looked through the suicide barrier on Ellington Bridge and saw the flashing lights of police cars below Taft Bridge.
“The next day, I was infuriated,” she recalled. “I was just infuriated that a bridge right next to an identical bridge didn’t have the same barrier. That’s how this started.”
This is her effort to keep the next person in a crisis who ends up standing on that bridge from taking an action that can’t be undone.
On Wednesday, a resolution in support of a Taft Bridge barrier was adopted by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners for the Adams Morgan community. In June, a similar resolution was adopted by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners for the Woodley Park community. Van Thof is now focused on getting support from the D.C. Council and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser.
If past efforts to get fences and nets added to bridges across the country are any indication, the most vocal resistance will come from individuals and groups who don’t want views and aesthetics altered by a barrier. Those are valid concerns, but preserving lives outweighs preserving landscapes. The country is in the middle of a known mental health crisis, and barriers have been proved to reduce the number of bridge suicides.
The construction of a barrier on Taft — and other bridges — is long overdue. Van Thof has also expressed support of the Barriers to Suicide Act, which calls for establishing a program to facilitate the installation of nets and barriers on structures across the country.
“Peter was the best person that I’ll ever meet,” she said, “and this is what he would have done.”
They lost a friend to suicide. Now, they’re on a 4,300-mile journey to help other young people who are struggling.
Van Thof and Tripp met while getting their doctorate degrees in veterinary medicine at Tufts University. She dreamed of working with wildlife; he gravitated toward cows and other livestock. As she tells it, it was just one of the many ways they were opposite.
She said they were best friends before they started dating. After they graduated in 2019, the two lived and worked together in Oregon before moving to the District, where he worked for District Veterinary Hospital in Brookland and she worked temporarily for Lap of Love, which does in-home euthanasia, before starting a fellowship with the State Department.
An obituary for Tripp describes him as possessing a gentleness that made him wonderful with animals and a dependability that made him someone his fellow humans leaned on. He regularly donated platelets, and he donated bone marrow after he received a call saying he was a match for someone in need.
“Those who love him are heartbroken that he was so adept at helping others but was somehow unable to ask for help for himself,” the obituary reads.
Van Thof said she knew that veterinarians were at much higher risk of dying by suicide than the general population — male vets are reportedly 2.1 times more likely and female vets 3.5 times more likely — but Tripp gave her no indication that he was considering ending his life. She said she found out only after his death that he had looked up the number for the suicide hotline but never called. She also discovered that on the day he died, he had scheduled a future appointment to see a therapist.
In the grief journal entries Van Thof posts online, she talks directly to Tripp. On Thursday, she told him about the ANC vote.
“Your resolution passed in the other ward near your bridge, babe,” she wrote. “Now it will go to city council and the mayor. You are going to save lives, even though you couldn’t save your own. Neither could I. I think a part of me feels that if I advocate hard enough for suicide prevention, I’ll get another part of you back, whatever that may mean. Nothing will bring you back, though.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. You can also reach at a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.