Creating a Virtual Network of Support in Times of Need

Nancy Settle-Murphy

When a life hangs in the balance, weave a vital network of support

My friend Terese didnít see it coming. Never felt the signs. One day she was a vibrant 49-year-old woman devoted entirely to giving her two beautiful young daughters a happy, healthy and secure life. The next day she was handed what many would resignedly accept as a death sentence: Terese has advanced ovarian cancer, and it will take 18 rounds of brutally aggressive chemotherapy and a miracle or two to pull through.

Those of us who were part of a tightly-knit group of parents who had embarked together on the amazing journey to bring our daughters home from China were devastated, saddened and shocked. How could this happen to one of us? Why Terese? And how on earth could we be of any real help in the face of such heart-wrenching news?

This article explores how a virtual team of friends, family, acquaintances and strangers from all over the world can band together to provide a safety net when a member of the team has an urgent need for help, but may be reluctant to reach out, especially to those who may be virtual strangers. Staying true to my own situation, I will refer to "friend" rather than "colleague" and "her" rather than "him." As you read through these guidelines, feel free to substitute other terminology as appropriate to give this more meaning to you.

Acknowledge your sorrow. Pick up the phone, send a handwritten note or drop in for a visit, if youíre able. Send e-mail only as a last resort. Express how you feel about your friendís misfortune, and donít mince words. Let her know you care, and give her a chance to let you know how she feels.

Be authentic about your intention to help. Inviting her to let you know how you can help is a non-starter. Chances are she is too overwhelmed to grasp what kind of assistance she needs and from whom. And if she is clear what kind of help she needs, even if she knows you quite well, she may be reluctant to impose on you, even for a slight favor. Much better to let her know how you intend to help, and be specific. For example, you can offer to help shop online for holiday gifts for her kids, arrange for meals on a particular day, or help finalize a report she feels she needs to finish up.

Donít make her feel invisible. If you have a chance for face-to-face contact, look her in the eye. Hold her hand. Hug her. Express your feelings verbally and physically, if youíre comfortable doing so. If your communications are restricted to phone or email, be direct about your feelings and invite her to do the same. Allow both of you time for reflection, which may mean protracted periods of silence.

Act on impulse and err on the side of generosity. If you see a card, gift, flowers or other item that you suspect your friend might appreciate, donít agonize as to whether to buy itó just do it. Giving your friend tangible evidence of your caring that she can see, feel and hold can be savored far longer than words in an email or on the phone. This is especially true when you canít be with her face to face.

Create a project plan. Put all your excellent managerial and communications skills to a higher use. Determine who the members of your virtual project team need to be and find a way to connect them easily. In our case, we use free online software to help pull a virtual team together. We sent emails and made calls to people who we knew were sincere in wanting to help, whether in making meals, taking care of the girls, driving Terese to chemo, or just checking in with her. The software allows us to schedule meals and other activities so that all of us can see where we have gaps and where help is needed. We named this band of friends and strangers ďTeam TereseĒ to remind us of this amazing woman who has bonded us together.

Communicate among team members frequently. Create a core team distribution list and share your observations, especially valuable when you know your friend is going through a very tough time. Exchange ideas about how best to help, and make sure that among you, you have your friend covered in ways that will matter most to her well- being. Use email, phone, web conference, or whatever ways make the most sense for the members of your team.

Check in frequently. Highlight important dates in your own calendar, such as doctorís appointments, trials and other dates that have great significance. Reach out to wish your friend luck before the date, or check in immediately afterward to see how she is. Donít expect her to reach out to you. There are probably dozens of people who want to hear from her. Vary the means by which you check in. If sheís ill or depressed, speaking on the phone may be more taxing than reading an email or opening a card.

Reach out to her family and those closest to her. If all team members are physically distant from your friend, ask permission from her to contact a friend or family member who is close by and can update you from time-to-time. Appoint one person on your team to be the conduit, alleviating the burden of family members to rehash the same details to multiple people.

Discuss your feelings with your team. Those of you who know her best will feel the greatest sadness and will have the greatest need to help. Find ways to discuss your feelings about your stricken friend with other team members. If you act as though nothing as happened and fail to acknowledge the void, your team may have even more difficulty operating without her.

Most of us have faced situations where someone we care deeply about has encountered sudden tragedy. Even when itís someone we can visit frequently, itís tough enough to know how to convey how much we care. But when itís someone who we may not know personally or who lives a distance away, itís much more difficult to know what to say or do to help. By reaching out to other team members, you can create a vital safety net of support with some thoughtful planning.

About the Author
Nancy Settle-Murphy is founder, president, and principal consultant for Chrysalis International Inc., a facilitation, training and strategic communications consulting firm based in Boxborough, Massachusetts.

As a facilitator, training designer and instructor, cross-cultural trainer, communications strategist and organizational development consultant, Nancy draws on an eclectic combination of skills and experiences. With an education in anthropology, speech and communications, she served in many positions of increasing responsibility in the insurance, manufacturing, and high-tech industries before making the leap to starting her own company in 1994.

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