Sifting Through a Life After Suicide

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During a support-group meeting for people left behind by suicide, Hope Litoff realized she was among a group of collectors.

“We all had storage spaces of our dead person,” said Ms. Litoff, a New York film editor whose sister, Ruth, an artist and photographer, committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 42. “We all had the same feelings. We had saved every single thing. The items themselves were too precious to part with, but at the same time, too painful to look at.”

As Ms. Litoff thought about her ability to keep emotional distance in her work, it occurred to her that perhaps by making a film about her sister’s life and her possessions that were packed in a storage space, she could sort through all of it.

“When I’m editing a film, I’m able to feel a certain amount of distance from the footage, even if it’s really sad,” she said. “I’m able to stay objective and tell the story. I had this fantasy if I filmed the items, they would exist on film, they would never be gone and I would be magically protected by the process — which I found out was totally not true.”

The result is “32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide,” a documentary premiering tonight on HBO. It’s a disturbing and honest portrayal of Ms. Litoff’s efforts to move past her sister’s suicide, but in retracing her sister’s steps she derails her own recovery from addiction. At one point in the film, to the dismay of those working with her on the project, she pops a few of her sister’s abandoned pills.

I spoke with Ms. Litoff about her reasons for making the film, how suicide affects those left behind and what she hopes people will take away from her story.

With the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” and the Broadway hit “Dear Evan Hansen,” the entertainment industry recently has seemed more willing to tackle the topic of suicide. Why do you think that is?

I was at a film festival in Colorado. A young boy came up to me and said, “My girlfriend just committed suicide and also eight of my friends.” The numbers are staggering. Hollywood and others being able to talk about it is a direct result of what’s really happening.

Many people are still uncomfortable with the topic.

I know a fancy private school in New York where a student killed himself. The school’s reaction was to take all mention of suicide out of the curriculum, any literature, any films, all art. It was removed from the course of study and not reintroduced until every single student who had been there at the time of the suicide had graduated. So for 10 years there was no mention of suicide. That’s absolutely the wrong way to respond to something like that.

There are many tragic and unexpected deaths. Why do you think suicide wreaks such havoc on the lives of those left behind?

My mother did die of cancer, and it was a long, lingering bout with lung cancer. I never said to myself, “I’m going to cure cancer.” That was not a fantasy that I had. With suicide there is this belief that you can make a change, and there are suicide hotlines and ways to help people. You don’t need to be a surgeon or a scientist to intervene and help someone who is struggling with depression. You are left with the thought that maybe I can be the one who’s going to help my sister, and I’m going to find the right words to say or the right way to make her happy.

How did you find the strength to make a movie about this?

The movie did wreck me. I was driven. I was obsessed and maybe in an unhealthy way I had to go through it. It’s really scary how dark I went, but I feel really grateful that I’m on the other side. I’m still dealing with it. It’s not like I’m all better. But now there are no more boogey monsters. I’ve read every journal. I’ve seen every date book. I’ve seen every pill bottle. It’s not as terrifying to me.

What do you hope people will get from the film?

What I am really hoping is that people who see the film feel like it’s for other people like me. It’s for people who were left behind and who were so alone that when they walk down the street they feel like a Martian and nobody can understand what they are feeling. I hope they feel less alone by seeing someone else who has experienced the same thing. I hope that people who love people who have lost someone to suicide will understand there’s no time limit to the pain. Just be patient with the person that is still in mourning. All you can really do is listen and be there. Don’t try to pretend it didn’t happen. Don’t not talk about it. It’s the not talking about it that keeps us all isolated and sad. If people go home or go out to dinner and talk about the film, that to me is an incredible success.