The Tale of an Empty Desk

I look at the empty desk and I wonder, could I have done more? Should I have done more?

I look at the empty desk and I feel a sense of loss. She’s gone. The young lady who always graced our front office with charm, wit and a bubbly personality is gone.

No, she’s not dead, and she’s not terminally ill, or anything like that. Though sometimes, I think either of those would be easier to swallow than what really happened.

She always seemed so strong, so capable, bright, cheerful, downright vivacious. No one ever suspected the truth. No one ever wondered. We didn’t question.

She was absent from work a lot, migraines, she said. We’d all been there. We didn’t question.

Then one day, the wind blew, her skirt billowed and the bruises on her legs were obvious. She’d just moved, she said, a lot of furniture and boxes and a lot of bumping and jarring. We didn’t question.

She came in one Monday, seeming stiff and sore, told colorful and funny stories about roller blading with her kids, and we didn’t question.

Slowly, though, ever so slowly, some of us started to wonder. When she came in after a few days off with a migraine and her face was a colorful pattern of bruises, “from running into the door”, we stopped questioning, we knew.

And we tried talking to her. We tried asking questions. We offered help. We did what we could. Still, she stayed with her abuser. Still she chose to leave work, to become even more isolated, even more controlled, even further away from any chance of escape.

As I look at the empty desk, I question.

I searched online – I knew there was plenty of information out there on Domestic Violence, but I was surprised at how little advice there was for those who suspect a friend, loved one or coworker may be a victim.

Places to find a wealth of sometimes startling information include the Feminist Majority Foundation and the National Domestic Violence Hotline. And you can check here for a long list of related links.

One of the most concise and thorough pages came from the NY State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence.

Summarizing their page, here is some basic info if you suspect someone you know is a victim of domestic violence.

  • Many victims don’t know who to turn to. They don’t know who to trust, or perhaps they’ve had bad experiences when they have reached out.

Possible indicators of domestic violence include:

  • Visible physical injury including:

  • bruises, lacerations, burns, human bite marks, and fractures—especially of the eyes, nose, teeth and jaw;

  • injuries during pregnancy, miscarriage, or premature births;

  • unexplained delay in seeking treatment for injuries; and

  • multiple injuries in different stages of healing.

Illnesses that may be related to battering include:

  • stress-related illnesses such as headaches, backaches, chronic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, sleep disorders, eating disorders, and fatigue;

  • anxiety-related conditions such as heart palpitations, hyperventilation, and “panic attacks”; and

  • less commonly, depression, suicidal thoughts or attempts, and alcohol or other drug problems.

“Presenting problems” are often related to or a result of domestic violence and include:

  • marital or “family” problems;

  • alcohol or other drug addiction; and

  • “mental health” problems.

In the workplace, the effects of domestic violence can emerge as:

  • lost productivity, chronic absenteeism or lateness, or requests for excessive amounts of time off;

  • on-the-job harassment by abuser, either in person or over the phone; and

  • poor employment history, or loss of employment.

Keep in mind, you can’t be sure, the only way to know is to ASK, and even then, you may not get a straight answer. Many women hide their abuse out of fear: their partner may find out, they’re embarrassed, they won’t be believed, they’ll be pressured to leave or take action they’re not ready to take.

ASK, directly, in private, with no judgment, or expectation of anything. Simply tell her what you’ve observed and what you are concerned about. She may trust you enough to talk; she may not. But at least you have provided an open door. Keep it simple and straight forward and make sure you tell her it’s “just between us.”

Be ready to be supportive. If you are going to ask, take some time to prepare yourself.

  • Educate yourself about domestic violence – Search online, talk to a domestic violence advocate, understand what services are available.

  • Initiate a conversation in private and when you have enough time to talk at length, if she chooses to.

  • Let go of any expectations you have that there is a “quick fix” to domestic violence or to the obstacles a victim faces. Understand that “inaction” may very well be her best safety strategy at any given time.

  • Let go of, challenge and change any preconceived notions, inaccurate attitudes or beliefs you may have about battered women. Battered women aren’t battered because there’s something wrong with them. Rather, they are women who become trapped in relationships by their partners’ use of violence and coercion.

Some important things to DO:

  • Believe her—and let her know that you do. If you know her partner, remember that batterers most often behave differently in public than they do in private.

  • Listen to what she tells you. If you actively listen, ask clarifying questions, and avoid making judgments and giving advice, you will most likely learn directly from her what it is she needs.

  • Build on her strengths. Based on what she tells you and your own observations, actively identify the ways in which she has developed coping strategies, solved problems, and exhibited courage and determination, even if her efforts have not been completely successful. Tell her you see these strengths.

  • Validate her feelings. It is common for women to have conflicting feelings—love and fear, guilt and anger, hope and sadness. Let her know that her feelings are normal and reasonable.

  • Avoid victim-blaming. Tell her that the abuse is not her fault. Reinforce that the abuse is her partner’s problem and his responsibility, but refrain from “bad-mouthing” him.

  • Take her fears seriously. If you are concerned about her safety, express your concern without judgment by simply saying, “Your situation sounds dangerous and I’m concerned about your safety.”

  • Offer help. As appropriate, offer specific forms of help and information. If she asks you to do something you’re willing and able to do, do it. If you can’t or don’t want to, say so and help her identify other ways to have that need met. Then look for other ways that you can help.

  • Be an active, creative partner in a woman’s safety planning effort. The key to safety planning is taking a problem, considering the full range of available options, evaluating the risks and benefits of different options, and identifying ways to reduce the risks. Offer ideas, resources and information.

  • Support her decisions. Remember there are risks attached to every decision a battered woman makes. If you truly want to be helpful, be patient and respectful of a woman’s decisions, even if you don’t agree with them.

The bottom line here is this: get informed and don’t sit back thinking, “It’s none of my business.” You can make a difference.

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