When a person experiences a major upheaval in their life, such as the loss of a loved one, the typical response is grief. Hard to process and taking many forms, grief can lead to anger, sadness, and a wide variety of other emotions. In addition to being highly disruptive, grief can also go on for an extended period of time. Some people grieve for months or the better part of a year after a loved one passes.
This is why grief counseling is such a critical part of mental health care. When people find themselves immersed in feelings of grief, they may turn to a trained professional who can assist them in processing their emotions in a healthy way. Grief counselors do just that, helping individuals or groups of people cope with complicated emotions in a safe environment.
Those interested in how to become a grief counselor can benefit from a well-developed sense of empathy and a master’s degree in counseling. Counselors need the right education and skill set to be able to help individuals process their grief.
What Does a Grief Counselor Do?
Grief counselors are instrumental in helping people understand and process the pain and complexity of their grief, which is a very personal process.
Although Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) may be the most widely known model, it is now accepted that there are many ways to deal with and work through grief. Alternative models include the four phases proposed by British psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes (shock and numbness, yearning and searching, despair and disorganization, and reorganization and recovery) and the two grief cycles (loss orientation and restoration orientation) developed by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut.
Regardless of how an individual experiences grief, counselors adapt and structure their therapy sessions to best suit how their patients are feeling. Grief counselors will use tactics such as situational revisiting and cognitive restructuring.
- Situational revisiting prompts the patient to engage with places that trigger grief or memories to confront their feelings.
- Cognitive restructuring helps an individual identify negative thought patterns so they can work on changing those patterns.
Grief counselors work in several different settings such as mental health clinics, hospitals, schools, and long-term care facilities. They also conduct telehealth appointments for those who can’t meet in person.
Steps to Become a Grief Counselor
For those who are passionate about helping individuals cope with their grief and wondering how to become a grief counselor, the following explores the education, certification, and licensure that are required.
An advanced degree such as a master of arts in counseling (MAC) will provide the educational foundation to be effective in this line of work. Not only will it offer students a comprehensive understanding of grief models, but it will also develop the counseling skills that are essential to the profession such as active listening, interpersonal skills, and compassion. An education also enables the counselor to become competent in analyzing their clients.
Grief counselors typically must obtain state licensure to begin practicing. Licensure requirements for grief counselors vary from state to state. Those without licensure in a state that requires one may still be able to practice, although the level of their practice will be limited in scope (churches, funeral homes, etc.). Only with a license may a grief counselor work in a hospital setting or private practice.
A certificate in grief counseling can be obtained through the American Academy of Grief Counseling. This optional certificate confirms that the grief counselor has the education and skills necessary to work with patients. The certification process breaks down into two distinct phases.
- Phase I: Professional Education. Candidates must successfully complete all of the courses in the defined curriculum. This confirms the candidate has all the skills and knowledge required to be a practicing grief counselor. Once the candidate has enrolled in a program, they then have a time limit of two years to complete all the required courses included in the curriculum.
- Phase II: Certification. Once Phase I is complete, the candidate is then eligible to apply for and receive certification. Getting certified is a matter of providing information in an application, sending in documentation, and paying an application fee. Once certified, the individual must keep up with their certification renewal on an ongoing basis.
For those wishing to become a grief support practitioner, the American Academy of Grief Counseling offers an advanced certification program as well.
Salary and Job Growth
According to PayScale, the median annual grief counselor salary was around $42,500 as of August 2021. To cite an additional source, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors had a median annual salary of $47,660 in 2020. Salaries are affected by factors such as education, experience, region, and the employer.
Employment in the job category is expected to increase by 23% between 2019 and 2029. This rate is much faster than the average growth for all occupations combined (4%), according to the BLS.
Make a Difference When It Matters Most
Grief counselors are critical in the process of helping individuals overcome traumatic events. Anyone interested in learning more about how to become a grief counselor can start by exploring the role’s educational requirements. Using a blend of academic theory and hands-on experience, Bradley University’s 100% online master of arts in counseling degree program is designed to give students a full comprehension of counseling. Classes such as Loss and Grief Counseling, Counseling Diverse Populations, and Crisis Intervention all apply to the knowledge and skills that a successful grief counselor will need.
Bradley’s counseling degree program prepares students to gain licensure so that they may begin making an immediate positive impact. Contact an enrollment adviser today to learn more about the online graduate degree, program curriculum, and admissions requirements.
Is There a Difference Between a Therapist and a Counselor?
American Institute of Health Care Professionals, Certification Process
American Institute of Health Care Professionals, Online Certifications
American Psychological Association, “Grieving Life and Loss”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Grief and Loss
Choosing Therapy, “Grief Counseling: How It Works, What It Costs, & What to Expect”
OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, “Bereavement in Times of COVID-19: A Review and Theoretical Framework”
PayScale, Average Grief Counselor Salary
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors