Funeral Director Takes Kermit the Therapy Dog to Meet Florida Shooting Survivors
Last week, the survivors, first responders, and volunteers of the tragic Florida school shooting got a surprise visit from a therapy dog named Kermit and his person, mortician Mellissa Unfred. We interviewed Unfred about her experience that day and about how having a therapy dog on-call for your funeral home can help sooth grieving families.
CD: How did you end up going to help out after the shooting?
MU: I had flown into Tampa to help a friend who lost her husband 7 months ago… dealing with complicated grief. I was picking up her son from school when we heard about the shooting Valentines Day. He and I had a discussion on the way home about how hearing this, as a 14 year old, made him feel… his fears and feelings after the loss of his father, and now hearing how close to home another tragedy has struck. I listened mostly, something I have learned from being a good funeral professional… and one thing he said was he knew how much Kermit and I had helped him and his family. I am somewhat of an impulsive, live in the moment woman, again due to the nature of our profession, so that was all I needed to decide Kermit and I would take a day and drive to Parkland to assist in any capacity.
CD: Where did you take Kermit to meet the survivors and first responders? What was the scene like when you arrived?
MU: We took off at 5am Friday morning. It ended up being a 4 hour drive with a friend of ours from Orlando Florida. The day before, a local therapy dog team had contacted me via twitter, so the initial idea was to meet up with them and go where ever was needed. By 10am, I hadn’t heard back and decided to strike out on my own. I looked online to see where the gathering and remembrance locations were, and decided to see the Parkland Recreational Center memorial, where we would be outdoors. At this time, I decided not to act as a therapy dog team, but to just be ourselves. We walked the field and documented the experience silently on my instagram story for my followers to experience.
It was somber and quiet… very moving. After we spent some time meandering, we plopped down in the shade and sat to reflect. People just approached us on their own…. some students, some volunteers, one man was a police officer that responded to the scene. He was the only one I had the most conversation with, but the students mostly asked if they could pet Kermit, then would linger for 5 to 10 minutes stroking his fur and talking amongst themselves. We stayed in the field about 2 hours total…. just being present.
CD: How was Kermit received by the survivors and first responders? What was their reaction they realized Kermit was there for comforting?
MU: Kermit is always well received. There were about 15 robo-looking golden retrievers, literally like stepford dogs! They were all there as a team. We differentiated ourselves because we weren’t there on official business. People approached us on their own, Kermit has a relaxing personality, … he even got into a few of the snuggles by going full bare belly! He just knows how to act based on the person he is interacting with.
CD: Has Kermit been to the scenes of other tragedies of magnitude?
MU: This was our first of this magnitude. He has been present for deaths of clients, present for their families during arrangements and funerals, present for aftercare sometimes…. he goes to schools and interacts with children on an education basis. This is his element.
CD: In your job, what affect do you see that kermit has on the families you serve?
MU: Time and again, he brings comfort to confusion. We serve beyond our families, but the community as well. I am so very fortunate to have him in my life. I am lucky… I had no way of knowing this would be our path. He started out as an ESA for me by recommendation from my doctors.
I learned early in my life actions speak louder than words. I was fortunate to be able to take Kermit and visit the memorial site. It was a moving experience.
For funeral homes who want to work with therapy dogs Unfred has this advice,
…your firm doesn’t have to have a dog on staff to serve your families…. Partner with an EXISTING non profit certified dog therapy team to provide this service to your families. Kermit’s training was extensive, and dogs cannot even be considered for training as a therapy dog until they reach 1 year of age.