Support systems, necessary to our survival in normal situations, become essential during times of crisis. Most simply, when our world falls apart because of a job loss, divorce, life-threatening illness or other seismic events, we need 1) help getting things done, 2) particular kinds of knowledge or expertise that we do not have but is crucial to resolving the crisis, 3) emotional and 4) spiritual support. Yet finding and keeping the help we need to get through the crisis can be difficult. Here are some guidelines that can assist you in doing so:

Gather your support thoughtfully and intentionally. Take a few moments to think about what support you really need. Make a to do list of what has to be done, without thinking about the “who” part of the equation.

  • What is on there that you dread taking on? Where do you feel clueless?
  • What are the problems that need to be solved or the decisions that need to be made? What kinds of expertise or knowledge will be critical in understanding the options–costs, benefits, and potential consequences?
  • Is it expertise you don’t have, information you can’t get access to, a listening ear, or someone to remind you of who you are beneath the emotions and details you have to handle?

Now determine who can provide what you need. Don’t try to find one person to fit all the needs; rather, make a list of people who have a portion of those qualities.

Be responsible for shaping the support you get. One of the most valuable things you can do when pulling together a support team is to let them clearly know how they can help you best. While it may be easier, and certainly tempting, to show up and hope that people will intuitively know what you need, it is inadvisable to do so. When people are providing assistance to someone, they want to feel that they are doing it “right.” Don’t make them guess and take the chance of getting it wrong. While the particulars will probably vary depending on the issue for which you are seeking help, the individual providing it, and where you are—physically, emotionally, psychologically, think about:

  • Format—what form of communication works best for you? Email, text? Phone calls? Face to face? Facebook messaging?
  • Timing—When are you most available? How quickly do you need the assistance?
  • Detail—Do you need all the facts, where the information comes from, back up data? Or just the bottom line.

One of my closest friends, and key members of my community support told me, years after I first shared my son’s diagnosis of cancer, how much she appreciated my note telling her to email me, instead of call. I knew that while I was doing everything I could to keep it together for Nick, I couldn’t handle actually hearing Barbara’s nurturing, loving voice without completely breaking down.

Call upon your community when you need them. Extraordinary circumstances can yield extraordinary help if you ask for it. When things are the grimmest, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. People have great heroics within them that they willingly will rise to in the service of others. They just have to be asked. As someone who has asked, and received, much through the kindness of others, my recommendations are to:

Don’t let your own fears of rejection get in the way. You have nothing to lose by asking. Remind yourself that the worst that can happen is that you are still in the same spot as before you asked.

Use the “asks” very, very wisely. People will usually respond if the request is meaningful and/or infrequent. Daily or repeated requests can exhaust your community members’ goodwill.

Be as explicit as possible about what you need. This is so you don’t look like a bottomless pit of need (one of my fears). When you make specific requests that are limited (i.e. not “solve world hunger”) in nature, your supporters will have more confidence in their ability to deliver.

Preserve your community. It’s easy, when you’re the one suffering, to turn your support system into a dumping place for all of your angst and anger. That will likely happen on occasion but, when balanced with staying connected, demonstrating appreciation and providing some kind of reciprocity (when possible), the support system is more apt to stay in place without burning out or experiencing compassion fatigue. Some ways to preserve your community include:

Keep them informed. When people have invested in helping you through a crisis, it is only natural to want to know what is happening. Make sure that they are kept up to date on what has happened and what will happen. They will appreciate knowing but will also be in a better place to help you if their information is up to date.

Say “thank you.” Think about ways to show appreciation and gratitude for what they are doing and have done. It can be as easy as keeping stationery with you so that whenever time allows (waiting for doctors or clients was my favorite time to write a note) you can jot a quick thought expressing your heartfelt gratitude for their assistance and help.

Be interested in their lives. Stay genuinely connected. Ask about their families. Make sure they don’t feel uncomfortable that their lives are not in crisis by giving them permission (encouraging them, in fact) to talk about what is going on for them. Take the time to ask and listen to what is going on in their world..

By engaging the assistance you need intentionally, being clear about what you need, expressing gratitude, and keeping the relationships a two way street, your community of support can be one of your most effective means of getting through the difficult challenge you are facing. Or, as the Beatles so eloquently wrote, we “get by with a little help from our friends.”