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.
- participate in community support groups as well as within individual sessions.
- practice active listening and provide individualized attention.
- introduce clients to coping mechanisms.
- organize and moderate a 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.
Steps to Become a Grief Counselor
Step 1: Complete a bachelor’s degree in a behavioral, social science, or psychology field.
Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in a counseling related field sets the tone for graduate degree work to become a licensed grief counselor. Coursework for undergraduate studies in these fields 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 marriage and family therapy.
Grief counselors may come from many different backgrounds, from education to human resources. Ultimately a focus on human services and development in a master’s degree program creates further specialized study into counseling theories, multicultural counseling, understanding family dynamics, psychology of human development, and a comprehensive review of mental health disorders.
Step 3: Complete graduate and postgraduate internship experience for certification/licensure requirements.
As a crucial aspect of accredited counseling master’s programs, graduate supervised counseling experience allows students to dive into their future role as a licensed professional counselor.
Step 4: Pass any required exams for certification/licensure.
Some states and/or counseling 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).
Step 5: Apply for and earn additional certifications.
In working with clients experience 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.
Take The Next Step
Become a grief counselor by earning your master's degree in counseling from an accredited online program.
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What are the licensing requirements?
With the exception of the Grief Recovery Specialist certification, state licensure is required in order to practice as a professional counselor working with grief. 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, professional couneslors may be required to take continuing education to maintain their license, specifically pertaining to grief work professional development. Specific licensure requirements vary by state.
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 for grief counseling, 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 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.
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. 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 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. Counselors employed by outpatient programs and government agencies typically earn close to the average for the field.