A grief counselor specializes in working with clients 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, a grief counselor guides their emotions and explores the perception of their grief with them.
What do Grief Counselors do?
Grief counselors 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 a grief counselor 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 the grief counselor to guide their clients through each stage and to provide support as they navigate the waves of these stages. The view of loss from a grief counselor’s perception is that it is integral to a person’s life story. 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.
Grief counselors may participate in community support groups as well as within individual sessions. In a one-on-one setting, grief counselors practice active listening, provide individualized attention, and introduce clients to coping mechanisms. A grief counselor may organize and moderate a group session that includes clients coping with similar types of loss. In group settings, the 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. Grief counselors 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 job of a grief counselor 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.
How to become a Grief Counselor?
Because grief counselors practice in such a wide range of settings, educational and licensing or certification requirements can vary. A bachelor’s degree is always required, as you’ll need to have a good foundation of courses in the social and behavioral sciences — particularly psychology, social work and/or sociology. A master’s degree in counseling, marriage and family therapy, social work or psychology is preferred, and often required for employment and/or professional licensure in some states.
As becoming a grief counselor entails the enrollment and completion of a master’s program in mental health counseling, psychology, or social work to name a few, coursework will be parallel to those requirements for a master’s degree within those fields. All the same, curriculum requirements will require participation in a clinical internship or practicum. For information about specific programs, see Counseling Education.
Requisite coursework in a grief counseling master’s program typically includes classes in counseling techniques and theory, ethics, psychotherapy, group therapy and client assessment. The curriculum requirements often require participation in a clinical internship or practicum. For information about specific programs, see Counseling Education.
What are the licensing requirements?
With the exception of the Grief Recovery Specialist certification, state licensure is required in almost all states in order to practice as a grief counselor. Requirements typically include completion of a counseling or similar master's degree program, two years of supervised post-graduate clinical experience and a passing score on a state-administered licensing exam. Additionally, practicing grief counselors may be required to take continuing education to maintain their license. Specific licensure requirements vary by state. See state license requirements.
Are there certification requirements?
While not mandatory, 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 as a grief counselor, applicants must be one of the following licensed occupations:
- Registered Nurse
- Social Worker
- Health Care Professional
- Professional Counselor
- Funeral Director
- 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 work as a grief counselor. Required coursework for this optional certification includes: death, dying, and mourning, grief counseling for the helping professions, grief therapy, and working with grieving children.
Similarly, the Grief Recovery Institute offers certification training to become a certified Grief Recovery Specialist. This program does not require former education or training in a counseling or therapeutic setting. Rather, this program provides a certification as a specialist and continuing education hours as approved by the National Association of Social Workers, the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals, The Association of Professional Chaplains, and is approved for Veteran’s Education Benefits.
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. Grief counselors 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. In practice, grief counselors may offer individual or group therapy.
Career Outlook for Grief Counselors
According to both the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest concentration of employed counselors is in Texas, California, Florida, Illinois and Ohio. The concentrations are also higher in major metropolitan areas, including Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, New York City, Miami, and Tampa. As far as salaries by state, the highest earnings have been reported in New Jersey, Arizona, Texas, New York, Washington, and California. The cities with the highest earning counselors are Trenton, New Jersey (~$90,000) and Tucson, Arizona (~$67,000).
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale.com summarize that the average annual salary for a grief counselor in the U.S. is about $45,000. However, salaries vary depending on the industry and setting. For example, grief counselors employed by a hospice facility or are a chaplain could earn up to $50,000 per year. Meanwhile, those employed by residential care facilities and community organizations, including individual and family services, death care services and emergency relief organizations earn an average of between $35,000 and $40,000. Grief counselors employed by outpatient programs and government agencies typically earn close to the average for the field.