THE BLOG

How Do You Help a Friend Who's Hurting?

10/03/2013 04:51 pm ET | Updated Dec 03, 2013

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Photo credit: Bobby Johnson

My friend Tiffany had a stroke in January. A bad one. The kind doctors say most people don't wake up from.

Tiffany was a regular on the talk show before this happened. I wanted to have her back, but I was afraid of posing the difficult questions. How do you ask someone who just celebrated her 41st birthday and is now paralyzed on her left side if it'll always be that way?

I have another friend who's a doctor in Chicago, and he recently told me about a colleague who was dying. He didn't know what to do, either. How do you?

You don't. But as Alex pointed out, there's a way to find out.

Ask.

"Does it help to talk about it?" Alex worked up the nerve to ask his friend. To which the friend replied, "It does! Most people won't... " And so began some of the most meaningful conversations Alex has ever had.

Buoyed by this exchange, I wrote to Tiffany and asked if she'd be willing to be my guest on the talk show again to let people know why it had been a while, what had happened, how she's doing.

Did she!

And so began one of the most interesting conversations I've ever had. It wasn't my smoothest as a host, but you're welcome to listen. Tiffany would answer a question and pause, for example -- long enough for me to think it was time to pose another question, but not long enough for me to be sure she was finished.

Maybe you've heard it said that when something really good or really bad happens, people only become more of themselves. Sweethearts are still sweethearts. Bullies, the same. Winning a lottery might make it easier to retire a few loans, but it's going to be the same gem of a person (or not) writing those checks.

That's what it was like, talking with Tiffany. I kept thinking, "She's still Tiffany." She kept giving me the impression, "But of course."

Take manicures and pedicures. Tiffany will. She used to be known for her heels and it breaks her heart to sport a brace, now. But pedicures? Come on. She's still her. And that's one of the first things she mentioned about friends who've helped. They pamper her. They're not afraid to touch her. They're not afraid she'll break.

They're not afraid she'll break.

It hasn't been easy for Tiffany to resign herself to what she calls the new normal. She's been clinging to what hasn't changed about her life. Her adoring husband, for example, who takes care of her in ways she didn't see coming for another five decades or so -- who tells her every day how proud he is of her, and reminds her every day how far she's come. Tiff teared up when she talked about him, and made me wonder if there's a more devoted couple in all the world.

What else does she look forward to? Eating! Don't we all. Peanut butter and jelly tastes better than ever, as does lemonade and cherry pie. "Food is comfort," Tiffany says. "Macaroni and cheese is love."

Television helps. "The Real Housewives of any county." Pause. "The crappier, the better."

She loves it when friends come over and watch television with her, especially when they help themselves to what's in the fridge without asking if it's okay.

And work. There's always work. Tiffany's a psychic, and the sweetest picture she painted during our conversation was giving readings to nurses who came in on their 2 o'clock in the morning rounds. Who was going to have a baby, who might want to think of letting a relationship wind down, that sort of thing. Once in a while she'd freak someone out with a question about who some guy was in the corner -- only to learn the man in the room next door had died earlier in the day. Can you imagine? It's the middle of the night, and Tiffany's holding court the way the most popular girl in elementary school used to do at slumber parties.

Tiff's not necessarily any better able to help her clients glimpse their futures than she was before, but she's much more likely to cry along with them when they start. I can't imagine her having more compassion than she did before, but I'll take her word for it.

And friends! Tiffany wouldn't have one of her best friends, who also happens to be a nurse, without the stroke -- and you get the impression it was worth it just from that standpoint.

I don't drink, but I can't imagine not wanting the escape once in a while if I were Tiffany. "Can you drink?" I asked, wondering about mixing that with any medications she might be taking. "I can!" she exclaimed. And then, pausing just long enough to pretend she was, "Whoo!"

What became clear immediately -- acknowledging how good I felt just talking with Tiff again -- is that she still brings as much if not more to these relationships as she gets back. Her husband is all the reason she needs to heal, she says, but there are "too many other people" depending on her to consider giving up.

So here's what I learned from Tiffany about helping a friend who's hurting. Don't be afraid of breaking her. Ask what would help. And go ahead and ask for something right back. Nothing heals like knowing you're needed.

Please visit Friends of Tiffany -- Recovery Support Donations if you'd like to learn more. Thanks!

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