How to Become a Grief Counselor

Grief counseling professionals specialize in work with clients who are coping with profound loss — whether this is the death of a loved one, a debilitating injury, terminal illness, divorce, or other significant personal bereavements. In establishing a counselor-client relationship, the practitioner must first determine what type of grief reaction their client is exhibiting. Every individual grieves in their own way, some experience depression, anxiety, or extreme stress while others may experience a feeling of relief, happiness, or confusion. No matter what a client is experiencing, counselors in this field assist their clients in exploring their emotions and the perception of their grief.

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What do Grief Counselors Do?

Counselors specializing in grief guide clients who are or have experienced a loss, illness, going through a divorce, or experiencing a significant change in their life. While some clients may seek to have their pain diminish, the role of professional counselors in this field comes to help clients come to the realization of their loss or change and guide them through their emotions, sometimes intense, to adapt to their new norm in a healthy manner. Through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, it is the task of these grief counseling professionals to guide their clients through each stage and to provide support as they navigate the waves of these stages. Certified grief counselors help clients with natural grief. However, counselors who are licensed and certified attend to states of unnatural grief with clients who may experience severe depression or an inability to adapt to the loss or change.

A few ways Grief counselors serve their clients are:

  • participating in community support groups as well as within individual sessions.
  • practicing active listening and provide individualized attention.
  • introducing clients to coping mechanisms.
  • organizing and moderating group sessions bringing together clients experiencing different types of loss.

Clients benefit from the shared experience and solidarity in knowing they are not alone in their emotional distress. This dynamic creates a sounding board of similar issues among diverse personalities that can lead to unique insights and help clients accept and navigate the grieving process.

The immense grief experienced after losing a spouse, partner, parent or child can be devastating. Bereavement is often the term used to describe the time we spend adjusting to loss. Counselors in grief work understand that grieving and bereavement is different for every individual. Variations in time to cope and adapt depend upon a number of factors, including relationship to loss, significance of said relationship, previous coping skills employed, and emotional stability. Grief can manifest as sadness, anger, denial and even delusion. A grief counselor helps clients to accept their loss and adjust to their changed life. The most important role is to ensure that extended grief doesn’t turn to lasting depression, and if it does, that the client receives a referral to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist.

Here are 6 steps to become a grief counselor

Step 1: Complete a bachelor’s degree in a behavioral, social science, psychology, or another field.

Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in human services, psychology, or related field is required to register for certification through the American Institute of Mental Health Professionals (AIMHP).. Coursework for undergraduate studies in social science or psychology will typically include the evaluation of human development, counseling skills and foundation, introduction to psychology, and/or basic approaches to counseling/therapy.

Step 2: Earn a master’s degree in counseling, psychology, social work, or a related field.

While a master’s degree is not required, grief counselors may come from many different backgrounds, from education to human resources.. If you have not earned a bachelor’s degree in a human services field, a master’s degree may help you pursue a career as a grief counselor. Ultimately a focus on human services and development in a master’s degree program may create further specialized study into counseling theories, multicultural counseling, understanding family dynamics, psychology of human development, and a comprehensive review of mental health disorders.


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Step 3: Complete graduate and postgraduate internship experience for certification/licensure requirements.

If you pursue a master’s in counseling, a crucial aspect of accredited counseling master’s programs, is graduate supervised counseling experience, which allows students to dive into their future role as a licensed professional counselor.

Step 4: Pass any required exams for certification and apply for licensure.

Some states and/or master’s programs require the passing of a recognized examination for gradation or certification/licensure such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and/or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Check the available licenses and required examinations for counselors in your state through the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC).

Step 5: Apply for and earn additional certifications.

In working with clients experiencing grief, the American Institute of Health Care Professionals (AIHCP) offers a certification in grief counseling by completing four concentrated courses.

Step 6: Continue your education and stay up to date on grief and mental health counseling trends and changes.

To both maintain state licensure and be relevant in changes and trends, counselors specializing in grief must meet the requirements set forth by their licensing states as well as maintain continuing education for any additional certifications, such as the one issued by the AIHCP.

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What are the licensing requirements?

Although licensure is not required to become a grief counselor, state licensure is required if you practice as a licensed professional counselor working with grief. Requirements typically include completion of a counseling or similar master's degree program, two years of supervised postgraduate clinical experience and a passing score on a state-administered licensing exam.

Are there certification requirements?

Counselors can earn certification through The American Institute of Health Care Professionals (AIHCP). AIHCP’s Certified Grief Counseling designation gives you an additional credential that demonstrates your experience, education and level of counseling skills. AIHCP also offers continuing education programs in grief counseling. In order to qualify for a voluntary certification for grief counseling, applicants must be one of the following licensed occupations:

  • Registered Nurse
  • Social Worker
  • Health Care Professional
  • Professional Counselor
  • Psychologist
  • Funeral Director
  • Physician
  • Pastoral Counselor

Or a certified

  • Ordained Minister
  • School Counselor

Or possess a

  • Graduate degree in educational counseling
  • College degree in human services, psychology, or human behavior

The American Institute of Health Care Professionals offers this voluntary certification to guide practice for those seeking to pursue grief work as professional counselors. Required coursework for this optional certification includes: death, dying, and mourning, grief counseling for the helping professions, grief therapy, and working with grieving children.

Professional certification in thanatology, the scientific study of death, dying, and bereavement, is also available through The Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC). ADEC requires two years of experience with a bachelor's degree or one year of experience with a graduate degree, as well as two letters of recommendation, 60 hours of coursework on death and bereavement, and a passing score on an exam administered by the association. This certification course does not qualify any individual for licensure or practice. Rather this professional development certification signifies specialized training and education within the field of counseling.

Where do Grief Counselors work?

The services of grief counselors are highly sought by those in need, often indirectly through the referral of a primary care practitioner, health facility or government agency. The latter is often the case following a national disaster such as Hurricane Katrina or a mass tragedy like the Sandy Hook shootings. Professional counselors in grief work may be in private practice or employed by a community mental health facility. Their services may be needed at hospice facilities, funeral homes, rehabilitation and long-term care facilities, social service agencies, and a variety of public and private settings depending on circumstances.

Outlook for Grief Counselors

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest concentration of employed counselors is in California, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Illinois. The concentrations are also higher in major metropolitan areas, including Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Newark/New York City, and Miami. As far as salaries by state, the highest earnings have been reported in New Jersey, Texas, Nevada, Alaska, and Alabama. Salaries vary depending on the industry and setting.

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Bellevue University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Science in Clinical Counseling
  • Program Length: Two to three years
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credit Hours
  • 100-hours practicum
  • 600-hours internship
  • Residential and online students are responsible to complete practicum and clinical internship hours under supervision of a licensed counselor.
  • Candidates for the master’s degree program must have completed a prerequisite requirement of 6 credit hours in the behavioral sciences.

Admission Requirements

  • A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university, or a U.S. equivalent degree from a nationally or internationally accredited college or university
  • GPA of 2.5 or better from the most recent 60 credits of coursework earned toward the bachelor’s degree OR
  • GPA of 3.0 or better in previous graduate level coursework earned toward the graduate degree
  • May require letters of recommendation and essays in certain circumstances

Cornerstone University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master's Degree in Counseling
  • Program Length: Three to Four Years
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous

Program Requirements

  • 69 Credit hours
  • 100 hour practicum experience
  • 600 hour internship experience

Admission Requirements

  • Application
  • Official undergraduate transcripts with at least a 2.5 GPA from an accredited university
  • Ministry Reference
  • Personal Reference

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New York University

Program Overview

  • Program Name: Master of Arts in Mental Health and Wellness
  • Program Length: 1 ½ to 2+ year depending on enrollment basis.
  • Instruction Methods: Asynchronous and Synchronous

Program Requirements

  • 60 Credits
  • Completion of 700 hours of field work

Admissions Requirements

  • Completed online graduate application
  • Application Fee: $75, priority application timelines are $45
  • Statement of Purpose: Introduction of your goals, interests, career plans and reasons why you are pursuing a master's degree in counseling.
  • Current Resume or Curriculum Vitae
  • Transcripts from every postsecondary school uploaded. If admitted, you will need to provide official copies.
  • Two letters of recommendation from academic references.
  • If your native language is not English, you will need to submit TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE scores.
Learn more about NYU's online counseling program, request information directly from Counseling@NYU.

Last updated: April 2020