Kermit the border collie

Creature Comfort

How mortician Melissa Unfred and a dog named Kermit are helping others navigate grief.

As you can imagine, funeral care is fulfilling but emotionally draining work. I’m a mortician in Austin, Texas, and last year, I adopted a dog, an Australian shepherd and border collie mix, to help me decompress. It quickly became clear that the black-and-white pup with mismatched blue and brown eyes was ready to do much, much more. Widdle Kermit Ambrosius von Przygodski (named partly for everyone’s favorite frog and partly for a character played by David Bowie—you can just call him Kermit) is now my sidekick and the other half of Texas’ first certified dog team working in funeral care. We go everywhere together, from first calls to graveside funeral services.

I always clear it with families and staff first, and when they say yes, Kermit is on duty as a calming presence for anyone who needs him—staff included. He mostly stays in one place, within eyesight, and waits for people to come up to him. Sometimes, though, he approaches the grieving. What’s been incredible to see is how he can spot precisely who that is. One afternoon shortly after I got him, the owner of the Austin funeral home I partner with was seeing a family in the main office. Kermit walked right up to the widow and put his head in her lap, and that bit of comfort was what helped her finish arranging her husband’s services. He’ll also interact with children a lot; a funeral can be a strange and difficult place for them, and he helps them cope.

One of Kermit’s greatest gifts is his approachability. His eyes and his face make him so easy to talk to—even about the saddest situations—and he brings out a smile in everyone who spends time with him. We’ve worked with trainer Janet Perry and the Austin Dog Alliance to receive his therapy certification. Therapy animals must be at least 1 year old, so after Kermit’s first birthday in the spring, we made everything official through the Austin Dog Alliance’s certification program.

Kermit has also helped me with my anxiety and fear of the public. I’m always on point as a funeral director, but get me into a social situation and my nerves can take over. Having him by my side has been a profound experience, as both his owner and his teammate, and I’m very proud of him.

Sonya Vatomsky is a writer and researcher based in the Pacific Northwest. Their work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, and New York.

Photography by Sylvia Elzafon

Originally Published October 2017