Loss and grief counseling: Skills you can learn in a MAC program

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Tragic and traumatic experiences often bring clients to professional mental health counselors. Coming to terms with the loss of a loved one or a deeply personal and affecting event can be difficult. Navigating grief is a complex task, one not everyone is equipped to handle on their own. This processing of emotions is where clinical mental health counselors can provide valuable aid to clients.

Grief is a dominant theme in professional counseling. Not only can clinical mental health counselors specialize in grief therapy and become professional bereavement counselors, but grief can be a dominant subject in client interactions of any kind. Whether you’re a crisis counselor working with victims of traumatic events or a marriage counselor guiding clients through complex emotions stemming from divorce, grief is ever-present in counseling.

That reality makes it important for professional counselors to develop skills to help clients manage and process grief. Having the clinical background to objectively approach loss and then guide clients through their own experiences is important for professional counselors to reach positive outcomes. To build such a background, many consider earning a masters degree in counseling.

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Why is grief important to counseling?

Few other feelings stir such personal strife, anguish and distress as grief. So it’s little wonder that clients may seek out the professional services of a counselor in trying to cope with death or otherwise make sense of grief and move on from it. Grief counseling techniques can come in handy in a number of instances.

Grief can be present in a range of client situations, as well as produce a wide variety of behaviors and emotions. For instance, while often typified by intense sadness, expressions of grief may also come in the form of guilt, rage or confused relief. The range is reminiscent of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Indeed, family counselors may find themselves in group sessions where one family member can’t be consoled over a death and another is the opposite, even though both are impacted. Each reaction will differ, depending on the client. However, it’s the responsibility of counselors to effectively guide clients through each stage, imparting valuable advice and coping strategies along the way.

This overarching role of grief requires that counselors understand it and possess the skills to approach it with clients. For instance, there are two commonly identified forms of grief:

  • Instrumental grieving: This process can be seen in clients who strive to control grief and their surroundings, sometimes in an effort to mask pain, but other times as a means to cope and move on. Instrumental grieving often involves cogent decision-making and logical rationalization.
  • Intuitive grieving: At the other end of the grief spectrum lies intuitive grieving, or the intense emotional swings and moods that clients may enter when confronted by loss or trauma typified in media portrayals. Intuitive grievers may be more inclined to share emotions and thoughts because they encounter incredible difficulty in coping.

What skills and techniques are needed to address grief?

Learning grief therapy techniques can be a benefit for clinical mental counselors, whether they practice with general populations or specialize in other areas like substance abuse, schools or marriage. Grief can play a role in all manner of client interactions, so being prepared with strategies and methods for addressing the subject during consultations is essential.

A couple of professional development points to consider include:

  • Working on empathy: Empathy is the ability to understand and dispassionately appreciate what a client is going through, but at the same time stay removed. Whereas sympathy is mutual grief, empathy can be characterized more as a shoulder to cry on. Projecting empathy is not simple, as grief is personal and deep. But counselors who build empathetic skills and practice body language that conveys the same can do well in helping grieving clients.
  • Try creative attempts: Sometimes it can be hard to penetrate grief with conventional tools; in such circumstances, counselors may have to try innovative strategies for promoting healthy and productive emotional expression. One way to attempt this is by facilitating a “conversation” between the client and the recently deceased. This isn’t so much role-playing as it is giving clients an outlet for their thoughts that may encourage closure and understanding.

How can counselors build these skills?

While grief is a subject commonly explored and discussed in any counseling education, its overall importance often begs greater knowledge and methodologies. Professional counselors may be able to shape their skills through dealing with grief in real-life client situations, but many also turn to continued education as a way to further improve their competencies related to helping clients cope and express emotions due to grief.

A Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) is one graduate degree designed to prepare students with those skills to provide grief therapy in client settings. Counselors can learn more about loss and grief counseling, as well as gain experience with beliefs about loss, blockers to emotional expression and proven counseling interventions to produce desired outcomes. Students may also be exposed to theories on how gender and culture play a role in grief.

Get your online MAC from Bradley University

Finding the right school to build your counselor qualifications and skills is important to more effectively dealing with grief and aiding clients. Bradley University offers a 100 percent online MAC degree designed to let professional counselors complete coursework on their own time, and make the most of their lessons to apply in client experiences. Contact an enrollment advisor today to learn more about the online MAC graduate degree, program curricula and admissions requirements.

Recommended Readings:

Basic listening skills for counselors

Counseling for loved ones with terminal illnesses


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