A special spot where memories are nurtured lies in a quiet corner of a Cerrillos ranch.
Author Deborah Schildkraut tends to the garden with loving care, placing unique stones on top of mounded areas where beloved companion animals are buried. She might pause to recollect a story of the specific animal buried there or simply thank the creature for being part of her life.
The memory garden plays an important role in Schildkraut’s book, Goodbye, Jake, published last year by Operation Outreach — USA, a nonprofit literacy group that provides books and corresponding curriculum to elementary and middle schools. More than 10,000 copies of the book are in the hands of children nationwide, including 550 for six schools in the Santa Fe area.
Goodbye, Jake tells the story of the loss of a young boy’s “best friend,” his grandparent’s beloved greyhound. The picture book, richly illustrated by Santa Fe artist Whitney Martin, follows the boy’s grief and ultimate acceptance of the animal’s death.
Schildkraut, who writes for children under the pen name Bam Schildkraut (a nickname from her grandson), said the book is largely inspired from events in her own life. But the book fills a need, she said: finding appropriate ways for children to deal with death and dying.
Schildkraut, an animal behaviorist and psychologist, frames the story as a conversation between an adult and a child. That makes it easier for parents to discuss the issue with their own children, she said. “The characters are role models,” she said. “Parents who don’t know how to have this conversation can read this book, and the conversation is held there. When they’re done reading, it’s an easy transition to their current situation with their own animal or even a person’s death.”
The story has found a welcome reception in schools and beyond. Schildkraut knows of two hospices that use the book, and many people have written to her about how comforting the story was to them.
One person who found the book helpful was Patty Karlovitz, editor of Local Flavor. Karlovitz, the illustrator’s mother-in-law, said her two grandchildren fell in love with the book after the loss of their dog, Sadie. At first she said she was hesitant to read the book to her grandsons, who were ages 3 and 6 at the time.
“The story just seemed to give them strength,” she said. “I think it helped with their healing. It’s very touching and sweet, and they had me read it to them over and over again.”
The two boys made a memory garden for their dog at a place where Sadie, who died of cancer, liked to nap. “I think they have a deeper understanding that as long as they have a memory of Sadie, she lives on,” Karlovitz said.
Fifth-grade students in Carolyn Aparici’s class at Chaparral Elementary School in Albuquerque were also moved by the story. Aparici read the book to her students several times, lead discussions and made assignments for them about coping and loss.
“They really related to the story,” Aparici said. “It was a story that touched them; some were moved to tears.”
The students constructed a memory tree out of paper and were assigned to bring a photo of a loved person or pet who had died. When Schildkraut visited the class, the children held a ceremony where paper leaves with photos were attached to the tree. The students also offered a personal memory of the person or pet to the class. “The kids loved that the character was a boy their age, and they loved his relationship with his grandmother,” Aparici said. “They really connected with the fact that the dog in the story was based on Bam’s real dog. It’s a book that I’ll use again. It offers good social skills, good coping skills and good life skills.”
A school in Pennsylvania plans a similar ceremony with a live tree this spring.
“For me, that’s the beauty of the book’s message,” Schildkraut said. “People create their own ways to remember.”
The story is not just for children, Schildkraut said. Many people, regardless of age, have a hard time coping with the loss of their companion animals. The experience for some is often so difficult that they feel as if they can’t adopt again, she said. Those are the kind of people who provide wonderful homes for companion animals.
“You have someone who lives with you for a decade or more, and then the animal dies,” she said. “Maybe the dog or cat is the only individual in your life who’s given you love without condition. I want those people to be comforted, and to be able to bring another animal into their lives at some point.”
The death of her own greyhound, Jake, was a catalyst for the book. The illustrations are based on photos Schildkraut took of her greyhound, Dancer, who was the model for Jake.
The cover illustration is of a spontaneous moment when the dog, who Schildkraut describes as “huggy,” curled up around her grandson. “Dancer did this on her own,” Schildkraut said. “It wasn’t planned for the cover, but when Whitney sent the illustration to the publisher, everyone said, ‘Cover!’”
The story is set on a ranch and many scenes in the book have a distinctly Southwest feel. One section describes finding pottery shards on the ranch. The neighbor, archaeologist Ricardo Martinez, carefully explains to the boy that the pottery belonged to the people of a pueblo that no longer exists. The scene sets the stage for the memory garden.
“I like to learn about people who lived before me,” Martinez tells the boy, Cole. “It makes me smile to think that some little boy just like you may have played right here on this spot, and his mother may have served squash stew in one of these pots. It makes me feel connected to them even if they aren’t here anymore.”
The memory garden, which Schildkraut and her family created after moving to New Mexico in 2000, is just one ritual to deal with loss, she said. Rituals help people begin to heal from their grief because they acknowledge a death and provide a way for grief to be expressed.
Memory gardens, funerals, or donations to charities in honor of the deceased help initiate the path to coping and acceptance. Schildkraut’s ritual includes the memory garden and creating a remembrance page online. She takes a photo of the sky after a companion animal has been buried. Then she spends the rest of the day going through old photos to create the page that she shares with friends and family. “Some people have told me that they could never look through photos at such a sad time, but it is cathartic for me,” she wrote in an e-mail. “People need to do what is in their own comfort zones, but I do encourage them to do something.”
Schildkraut has spent much of her life working with animals. She initially considered becoming a veterinarian, but discovered animal behavior and psychology in college. For many years she taught animal behavior at the University of Massachusetts/Lowell and worked with Boston-area zoos as research and education director.
She said she was concerned both about the plight of wildlife in captivity and their dwindling numbers in the wild. “I got to know animals in a way that most people don’t, and I wanted to make their lives better,” she said, noting the awe of witnessing a gorilla birth.
In the late 1980s, she was among a group that helped create a conference and workshop in Boston on euthanasia and animal-care workers. It was her first formal foray into different aspects of animal death and dying.
Schildkraut has since turned her energy to companion animals and greyhound rescue. She continues to be involved in a Boston-area greyhound rescue and maintains its Web site. She is a writer and columnist for PETroglyphs, an animal-resource publication.
Goodbye, Jake in many ways represents Schildkraut’s personal evolution. She said having grandchildren has helped reacquaint her with children’s natural curiosity and emotional needs. “I had to be of a certain age, a certain level of experience and a certain place to write this book,” she said. “I wouldn’t have written this probably 20 years ago. It all came together now.”
Schildkraut, who plans other children’s books for the nonprofit, said she was careful to craft the book in an upbeat manner. There’s sadness in the story, but it’s healthy.
“Children are not afraid of emotions,” she said. “They tend to start judging emotions by the reactions of the adults around them. So that was carefully controlled (in the book). All the adults are supportive. It’s emotional, but there’s an upbeat ending. It’s a positive way to cope with loss.”
Dealing with death should be upfront and not couched in terms like “putting the animal to sleep.” Talking about death is important, Schildkraut said, but parents need only discuss what they think children can understand. That level depends on age and emotional maturity and experience.
Patience with children is also critical. Many children dealing with death ask the same questions over and over again. “They are not trying to annoy you,” she said. “They are trying out a concept that they are not familiar with.”
Death is inevitable, for a dog, a person or any living thing. Children, as with animals, can sense when someone’s in distress, Schildkraut said. That’s why an adult’s own behavior can have such an effect on children.
“You teach your children by the way that you respond, and that’s something parents should remember when dealing with the death of a companion animal,” she said. “If you handle it in the right way, your child is going to have great coping skills for the rest of his or her life. And you can start that at a very young age.”
Meet the author
Deborah Schildkraut will sign copies of her book Saturday at the Mother's Day Book Fair in The Village at Eldorado. The 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. event features 40 New Mexico authors.
Schildkraut's Web site: www.bamschildkraut.com
This story by Ben Swan originally appeared in the May 4, 2008 edition of The New Mexican.