Furry staff member helps with goodbyes

A four-legged staff member at Mitchell Family Funeral Home helps adults and children say goodbye to loved ones daily.

Gabriel, a 1-year-old Goldendoodle, is the newest staff member at the funeral home and one of two grief dogs in the state.

“He is a calming presence here,” said Mary Drake, business manager of Mitchell Funeral Home and owner of Gabriel. “He’s our ambassador of comfort. There are scientific studies that say the action of petting an animal or a dog is very calming for families.”

Gabriel has been a part of the funeral home since December. He is a psychotherapy training, registered service dog. His specialty is comfort, Drake said.

“Just having someone to talk to, sometimes with families, they may not be able to talk to each other- they could use him as their intermedium,” Drake said. “‘Remember when Dad had a dog’ or ‘Remember when we had a family pet.’ It’s a way of opening communications with them.”

Gabriel has big ears for listening to secrets, and knows how to keep them, she said.

“Especially for the little ones who may not know how to express themselves,” Drake said. “They can sit down and talk to the dog. They can share things they may not be able to tell an adult. That kind of opens up their grief process.”

During visitations Gabriel can be seen walking around the funeral home. Prior to the service itself, the chapel door is closed, unless the family requests otherwise.

“We had one family the deceased was so much of an animal lover that they asked him to be a part of their service,” Drake said. “During their funeral he came in and prayed with us. He’s so adorable when he prays.”

Gabriel’s prayer trick is unique to him. He kneels against a flat surface with his head down, his release is “Amen.”

“He’s the only dog I know that can pray,” Drake said.

Marty Mitchell, owner of Mitchell Family Funeral Home, said Gabriel is an elective.

“Ninety-nine percent of the families want him around,” Mitchell said. “When we have somebody that might have a fear of dogs or apprehension, he’s not there to be any anxiety. He’s just there to give unconditional love and really to listen. He’s just there to be a soft presence. It’s a very harsh environment when people are at funerals or planning, grief is very hard.”

By having Gabriel as a staff member at the funeral home, other staff members had to adjust.

“A lot of people know his name before they come in the door, that’s very touching,” Mitchell said. “Families are taking to him too. Sometimes they don’t give a darn who they’re meeting on our staff, they’ll say, ‘Is Gabe here?’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, Gabe can’t really make the funeral arrangements.'”

Gabriel came from a breeder in Florida. At seven weeks old, Gabriel started his training, which lasted for 10 months.

“What I liked about this breeder is one out of every litter is trained for a wounded warrior, I really liked that idea,” Drake said. “The name Gabriel means ‘messenger from God.'”