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Approaching the abyss

Around the turn of the century Adelaide Hills Mayor Jan-Claire Wisdom began a heart-wrenching journey through the battlefield of infant loss. Two decades on, she hopes her story will shine a light on an often taboo topic and help drive away the isolation so many women feel as they bear the pain of miscarriage.

In Jan-Claire Wisdom’s Crafers West garden are two rose bushes and a tiny wooden bench etched with the names “Grace, Rafe and Lily”.
They’re memorials to the Adelaide Hills Mayor’s three “dream children” – children she never had the chance to meet.
Jan-Claire easily fell pregnant with her first child, Georgia-Claire, but the following years set her on a course of pain, loss, isolation and ultimately depression as she came to terms with and grieved for the children she lost to miscarriage.
“We tried for a second child about two years after Georgia was born and I fell pregnant again easily,” she says.
“However, on a family visit to a friend in Ballarat at the end of the first trimester, I started bleeding.

“That was the beginning of my infant loss story.” The loss of that child – named Grace – descended upon her like a “great weight” of sadness.
And it was a feeling she would go on to experience countless times over as she suffered two more miscarriages and began the gruelling – and devastatingly unsuccessful – process of IVF.
As the miscarriages continued occurring, feelings of anxiety and stress mounted ahead of every doctor’s appointment, while poignant moments of grief still remain etched in her memory today.
“When the third miscarriage started I was at home alone,” she recalls.
“I can remember I howled so loudly and mournfully my whole body felt hollow.
“It was primeval. I felt it was a cry that reverberated through all the past centuries of my DNA as if I was mourning every baby ever lost in my family line before mine and all of those to come.”

It uplifts you and it takes your mind out of all of that reflection because you’ve got to be in the moment.

Jan-Claire Wisdom

Miscarriage affects about 110,000 Australian women – or up to one in five pregnancies – every year.
But despite its prevalence, it’s an experience that Jan-Claire says can lead to an intense sense of isolation – an isolation that slowly pushed her into a cloud of depression that lasted a decade.
“My GP warned me after the second miscarriage that depression could set in and it did,” she says.
“But it wasn’t like the classic grief stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance that I went through when the man I’d hoped to marry was killed in a motorcycle accident (years before).
“I grew up with parents who had been through WW2 and a family which was classically British and stoic by nature.
“So I just absorbed it, time and again. Eventually you start to shut down and simply exist.
“I moved through the grief and learned to accommodate it. But in hindsight it was the isolation that became the underlying cause of the depression.

“Working part-time alone from home and with no office to go to, having limited networks, overseas family and being in a semi-rural location all adds to the mix.” The cloud of depression remaining, Jan-Claire sought help from her GP and began taking medication which led to persistent headaches and nightmares.
“My poor husband would have to wake me up at night because I’m screaming,” she says.
“I started to think after years ‘I shouldn’t be doing this and the grieving should be over by now – it must be something else’.”

Over the following years she began to switch her approach from medication to creating ways out of the isolation she’d found herself in and credits returning to her PhD and being elected to the Adelaide Hills Council with helping her on that path.
“(After I came off the medication) I think I really tried to focus on trying to get a bit more joy out of life – because that’s what happens, you lose all your joy, all your connection – and try and reconnect more with my family in the UK.
“So I tried to see them, I made sure I called them up, I’d try and meet other girlfriends so those networks were built up.
“I re-engaged more with taking on more work and the other big thing for me was I decided I was going to pick up my PhD and run again and that was in 2010, the same time I got onto the council.
“And this was why the council was so good – you throw yourself into it.”

Also instrumental in Jan-Claire’s long recovery process were her Airedales, Millsy and Gracie, which she says forced her to “be in the present”.
“A dog’s got to be fed, it’s got to be trained, it’s got to be outside, it’s got to be walked, it doesn’t mind you rabbiting on about stuff if you’ve had a bad day or a good day,” she says.
“You have to be present with a dog and dogs just find life so joyous.
“It uplifts you and it takes your mind out of all of that reflection because you’ve got to be in the moment.”
The ashes of their three lost children were long ago scattered beneath the two rose bushes – fittingly Children’s Rose varieties – in her and her husband’s back garden.
But for years after her last known miscarriage, Jan-Claire still commemorated her children every year at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital’s annual thanksgiving service.

Jan-Claire Wisdom.

Each November Grace, Rafe and Lily’s names were written on stars alongside hundreds of other names to be hung on a Christmas tree in St Peter’s Cathedral. “It’s a beautiful gift to give lost children a name,” she says.
Today, Jan-Claire has completed her PhD in sociolinguistics (the study of how language is related to society), found her way out of a 10 year battle with depression and is running for her second term as the Mayor of the Adelaide Hills Council. But while her life has regained some sense of stability, the loss of her children is a grief she says will never fully disappear.

“The deep experience of infant loss means I feel like I have been to the brink and looked over into the abyss,” she says.
“Nothing has ever come close to the pain I felt then. Grief never goes away, but it can be accommodated.
“It is love unfulfilled and there remains a special place in my heart for my dream children.”

For miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death support contact the Sands Support Line on 1300 30 8307. If you or someone you know is experiencing depression call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.
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