Ask Natalie by Natalie Bencivenga

Writing About Sensitive, Difficult Subject

DEAR NATALIE: I'm a journalist who has done quite a bit of writing about suicide and the ways we, as a culture, try to make sense of it and give it meaning. ... A boy I went to middle school with killed himself shortly after Kurt Cobain did the same, an event that greatly shaped my life, as a person and a writer. I am now working on a book that compiles much of my research and writing, including the more personal story about this boy. .. Although 20 years have passed, his family was kind enough to talk with me about the event and share their memories. But when I began to approach former classmates about it, they were largely unresponsive. I worry that my interest in writing about this particular boy's death might come off as an act of sensationalism or defamation. Is there a way to communicate my intentions without scaring them away? Or is their reluctance less about me and more about the subject matter? I suppose, in the end, does their silence communicate as much as a response? -- That Girl

DEAR THAT GIRL: Suicide is not a subject we talk about in our society. ... Take the silence of your peers as the answer you needed to hear. The fact that no one wants to speak on this topic with you should indicate to you that this is a subject worth exploring in a sensitive, thoughtful manner. Don't let others' fear prevent you from, or shame you about, wanting to tackle a difficult topic. Without communication, there is no healing. Talk with a grief counselor who has worked with families that have lost a loved one to suicide for deeper insight. There is also a great book, "Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: Fourth Edition" by J. William Worden. You may find the chapter on suicide useful. Talk not just on suicide, but on the effects of grief and compounded grief. The book you're writing may change the hearts of those afraid to speak up, and maybe even help save someone who is contemplating their own way out. 

Natalie's Networking Tip of the Week: Social media is a key to networking. Start with the big three for business marketing: Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Reach out to people that are doing interesting things of value and set up times to chat via phone or in person to make that connection real and vibrant. 

Please send your relationship and lifestyle questions to or tweet them to @NBSeen. You can also send postal letters to Natalie Bencivenga, 358 North Shore Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15212

(This column was originally published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)