Grief Counseling: Education and Careers
It has been said that grief is the price we pay for love. But facing the loss of a loved one, whether a child, spouse, parent, other relative, or friend, can be an emotionally crippling experience that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to live a rewarding and productive life. That’s where grief counseling comes in.
Grief counselors help the bereaved learn to cope with, process, and eventually accept the death of their loved one. Because the range of reactions and responses to death vary tremendously, grief counselors need to determine the kind of grief therapy that will work best. Whether a person’s grief is the result of a traumatic, unexpected death or is a prolonged response to a serious loss, grief counseling can help.
What Is Grief Counseling?
Grief counseling is a specialized form of counseling designed to help a client recover from the loss of a loved one. Trained in the typical stages of grief a person experiences after a death, grief counselors help people to come to terms with and accept their loss. Grief counseling also helps people understand and process the wide range of emotions that frequently accompany loss. Sadness, anger, denial, and regret are just a few of the difficult emotions that the bereaved may experience. Grief counseling helps a person acknowledge and move through those feelings and, eventually, come to accept their loss.
What Does a Grief Counselor Do?
A grief counselor helps a grieving person process the complex emotions they are experiencing and come to accept the death of their loved one. Sometimes called bereavement counselors, these mental health professionals provide support and comfort to people experiencing loss.
Grief counselors help clients understand the five stages of grief as outlined by grief expert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. While experts agree that these are more accurately thought of as symptoms that may come and go in no particular order, the “five stages” model is still a valuable tool to help clients conceptualize their experience of loss. While not everyone will experience all of these, the five stages of grief are as follows:
- Denial: This stage is characterized by an inability to believe that the death has occurred. Denial helps to protect the bereaved from a crushing sense of loss right away.
- Anger: Anger is a normal reaction to loss and can be directed at the person who has died, or perhaps a person the bereaved holds responsible for the death. Anger can be directed at strangers as well.
- Bargaining: The “if only” phase is frequently accompanied by guilt and regret. This stage stems from the natural human inclination to somehow control and prevent the death that has already occurred.
- Depression: The expression and degree of sadness accompanying a loss will vary from person to person but is considered a nearly universal response to loss.
- Acceptance: This so-called final stage of grief is the one grief counselors help their clients work toward. Acceptance does not signal forgetting the loved one who has passed away, but rather living with the reality of the loss in a way that is marked by calm and peace.
A grief counselor helps a client work through these stages and eventually adjust to life after loss.
Grief Counseling Salary and Career Information
The average salary for a grief or bereavement counselor is $48,631, according to Payscale.com (October 2019).
Geography plays a significant role in salaries, however. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top paying states for the category of “all other” counselors, which includes grief counselors, are as follows (May 2017, the latest date for which figures are available):
|State||Annual Mean Salary|
Counseling is a field that is experiencing significant growth. In fact, the BLS predicts that jobs for mental health counselors will grow by 22% from 2018 to 2028, a tremendous rate when compared to the national average of just 5% for all other occupations.
It’s important to keep in mind that certain areas of the country employ counselors at higher rates than others. The top five states, according to the BLS, for employing the most grief counselors are as follows (May 2017):
How to Become a Grief Counselor
The steps to becoming a grief counselor may vary according to a person’s background and current profession. For example, clergy members, hospice professionals, nurses, physicians, and funeral home workers may take alternative paths to become bereavement counselors.
The typical steps for students on the path to becoming a grief counselor are as follows:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree: For most, earning an undergraduate degree in psychology, sociology, or social work will lay the foundation for the next level of education necessary to become a bereavement or grief counselor.
- Earn a master’s degree: Counseling typically requires education at the master’s degree level. Most grief counselors pursue master’s degrees in psychology, social work, or related mental health fields.
- Complete an internship: Most master’s degree programs will require practicum or internship experiences where students gain on-the-job experience in the field of counseling.
- Get certified: While not all grief counseling positions require certification, many grief counselors elect to become certified. Organizations like the American Academy of Grief Counseling offer multiple certifications for grief counseling professionals, including an advanced fellowship option for experienced grief counseling practitioners.
Education Requirements to Become a Grief Counselor
Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
Mental health professionals who decide to specialize in grief counseling will typically start by earning a bachelor’s in psychology, social work, or sociology. Most bachelor’s degrees will take approximately four years to complete, with options for both bachelor’s in arts (B.A.) and bachelor’s in science (B.S.) degrees.
While each college and university will have its own unique entrance requirements, most will require you to submit your high school GPA or GED scores, your SAT or ACT standardized test scores, a personal essay, and an application of admission. Minimum requirements, if any, for your GPA and standardized test scores will depend on your selected school’s admissions requirements.
Many colleges also require you to submit letters of recommendation, so it’s wise to select high school teachers who know you well and will be willing to write a letter highlighting your strengths as a student as well as your character.
While bachelor’s degrees are not typically offered in grief counseling, there are several foundational psychology and counseling courses you can expect to take at the undergraduate level. These classes can provide a strong foundation for your educational journey to become a grief counselor. Here is a sampling of courses you may encounter:
- Foundation of Psychology: This is a survey course on the principles, concepts, and issues in the major areas of psychology. Students will learn the biological bases of behavior, emotion, social psychology, personality, learning, language, and development.
- Group Counseling: This course provides an overview of the group counseling process. Students will participate in a group counseling experience and learn the types, stages, principles, problematic behaviors, and interventions of group counseling.
- Foundations of Crisis Response: This course presents a general overview of crisis response, critical incidents, and grief. Students will also learn interventional models.
Earning a bachelor’s in psychology or a related counseling field typically takes four years.
The number of required courses in your discipline will vary by institution as well as by degree. For example, some colleges may require approximately 10–12 four-credit courses in psychology to earn a B.A. in Psychology, while you may be expected to take up to 17 four-credit hour courses or more in the discipline for a B.S. in Psychology.
Each college and university may have different requirements, so it’s always wise to check with the institution that interests you.
Earn a Master’s Degree
In order to become a grief counselor, you usually need to earn a master’s degree in psychology or mental health counseling, which will typically take from two to three years to complete. You will also need to complete a practicum and a supervised internship.
Make sure to check whether your chosen program is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.
Some master’s programs do feature an emphasis in grief or bereavement counseling, so it’s worth searching for those if you know this is the path you want to take.
There are several common requirements for being accepted into a master’s in counseling program. Most master’s degree applicants must:
- Hold a B.A. or B.S. from a regionally accredited college or university. Master’s candidates are encouraged to hold degrees in counseling, psychology, or related human behavioral fields.
- Have a minimum GPA for all undergraduate coursework. Each university is different, but many require a minimum of 3.0.
- Submit college transcripts.
- Submit test scores for the GRE, if required.
- Submit letters of recommendation, if required.
There are several courses you are likely to encounter in a master’s psychology or counseling program with an emphasis on grief counseling or mental health counseling.
While each university will have unique offerings, here are three classes you may take:
- Grief and Bereavement Theory and Practice: This course covers the history of grief theory research, examining the multiple forms of loss one might experience.
- Ethics in Grief Counseling: This course provides an overview of major ethical issues in counseling and instructs students in self-awareness, multicultural sensitivity, legal issues, confidentiality, and personal and professional boundaries.
- Crisis and Trauma Response: This course provides students with an understanding of the personal and systemic impact of crises, disasters, and other trauma-causing events on individuals, couples, families, and communities.
- Candidates for master’s in counseling programs must typically complete a minimum of 60 credit hours of coursework, a process that usually takes from two to three years.
- Core coursework will be expected in counseling courses.
- A thesis may be required by your program or may be offered as an elective option. Students work closely with faculty advisors to develop topics that are suitable for their master’s focus.
- Fieldwork experience, generally consisting of a clinical practicum and internship, is also a requirement of master’s programs. Hours will vary according to state licensing requirements for mental health counseling, though grief counseling itself is not a licensed specialty.
Licensure and Certification
Although there is no specific licensing for grief counseling, many bereavement counselors do decide to pursue voluntary certification. Marketing yourself as a certified grief counselor will often make you a more attractive candidate for employment.
The American Academy of Grief Counseling offers two pathways of certification for grief counseling professionals.
- Option One: Completion of an approved education program that provides a minimum of 100 lecture hours and specializes in grief therapy and counseling.
- Option Two: Completion of the four core classes offered in the Continuing Education Program in Grief Counseling by the American Academy of Grief Counseling. Applicants should be aware that there are a number of pre-requisites required to enroll in this program.
Continuing Education for Grief Counselors
Although becoming certified as a grief counselor is voluntary, once you achieve that designation, you must recertify every four years. Recertifying as a grief counselor requires a minimum of 50 hours of continuing education credits within those four years.
At least half of those 50 hours must be directly related to education on grief counseling, death and dying, and/or bereavement. The Association for Death Education and Counseling is one example of an organization that offers continuing education credits through webinars and conferences. The American Institute of Healthcare Professionals offers several continuing education courses, all of which are available online. The American Counseling Association offers online courses geared toward grief counselors.
Additionally, recertification candidates must have evidence of practicing grief counseling for a minimum of 500 hours within the four-year period of active certification.
Careers Related to Grief Counseling
Counseling is a broad field with many applications, and there are many client-facing specialties you can focus on, including the following.
- Marriage and Family Therapy: Licensed marriage and family therapists, or LMFTs, help clients navigate a wide range of mental health challenges. These counselors help treat emotional disorders like anxiety and depression, childhood behavior, eating disorders, and divorce adjustment. LMFTs usually earn a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, though some pursue a doctorate in marriage and family therapy.
- Substance Abuse Counseling: Substance abuse counselors offer both individual and group therapy to clients who are battling alcohol and/or drug addiction. They work to help addicts gain control over their cravings and dependencies and live a healthy, productive life free from addiction. Addiction counselors must earn a master’s degree from an accredited program in order to become licensed in their state.
- Counseling Psychology: Counseling psychologists need either a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in counseling psychology to earn the designation of “psychologist.” These doctorate-level graduates work with individuals, families, groups, and organizations to treat a variety of problems and disorders. While both degrees will make you eligible to treat patients, D. programs are geared toward students who plan to treat patients in clinical settings.
- Career Counseling: Career counselors work directly with clients to help them find jobs, solve career-related problems, and discover vocations that will provide the best fit for their skills. Clients might include veterans, displaced workers, students, or anyone looking for career advice at the professional level. Most career counselors earn master’s degrees in psychology or a related field with a specialization in career management or counseling.
Rewards and Benefits of Being a Grief Counselor
Without doubt, grief counseling is a demanding profession that requires emotional stamina and a plethora of coping strategies, not only for your clients but also for yourself.
Helping someone cope with and come to terms with a deeply personal loss, however, is a privilege that grief counselors say outweighs the stresses of the profession.
Waheeda Saif, a grief and crisis counselor who works with clients in the Greater Boston area, calls it “an absolute honor to be able to support someone through (what is likely) one of their darkest moments in life.”
Read more of Saif’s thoughts about grief counseling in the Q&A below:
Q&A with Grief Counselor Waheeda Saif, LMHC
Waheeda is the Program Coordinator at Riverside Trauma Center. She has worked with adolescents and adults for over 10 years, providing therapy to survivors of abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Prior to that, she served as a Guardian ad Litem for the Florida court system.
She has been with Riverside Trauma Center since 2008, providing consultation after traumatic events, as well as conducting trainings on a range of issues regarding trauma and suicide. She served as a Team Leader in the FEMA-funded response to the tornados in central and western Massachusetts in 2011. Waheeda is trained specifically in trauma therapy modalities, including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). She has a graduate degree in Mental Health Counseling from Boston College.
What attracted you to grief counseling as a profession?
I didn’t set out to be a “grief counselor,” and I don’t think I am one in the traditional sense. What I do is more accurately described as “acute grief counseling” or “crisis counseling” or “disaster response” (which usually has elements of grief to it). I sort of fell into my current job, being attracted to all kinds of trauma. That said, now that I’m in this role, I really enjoy (odd word choice) being able to sit with someone in perhaps their worst moments and provide them some sense of relief.
What qualities do you think a successful grief counselor should possess?
I think it’s absolutely essential for a grief counselor to be able to tolerate intense emotions/reactions. It’s very common for acutely bereaved individuals to display “large” and “loud” emotions and reactions, and we must be able to maintain a “calm, dispassionate demeanor” through it all.
I feel it’s essential to have a high threshold for facing another person’s distress. That doesn’t mean this work doesn’t affect you – it does. But, in the moment, it’s not helpful if you’re made uncomfortable by someone else’s wailing or anger or catatonia. It’s not helpful if you end up grieving harder than they are, and they feel like they have to take care of you.
What is a typical workday like for you?
I don’t typically have regular “clients,” as in traditional psychotherapy. It’s more common for me to be in places/situations where a tragedy has just happened, and folks have recently been informed of a loss. So, my days are unpredictable – situations can pop up unexpectedly, and I typically have to respond fast (or organize other counselors to respond quickly).
Occasionally when I do see clients, it’s for acute or traumatic (homicide, suicide, sudden tragic death) loss, and people are grappling with difficult, conflicting, and uncomfortable emotions.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your profession?
It is an absolute honor to be able to support someone through (what is likely) one of their darkest moments in life.
I am forever humbled by the human spirit and the grace with which people are able to treat others. I am always floored by human beings’ capacity to withstand unbearable loss and tragedy. I often find myself thinking, “if that had happened to me, I’d crawl into bed and never leave,” and yet every day I see people get up and shoulder their day, often with unfathomable pain, and almost always with a fortitude that seems super-human.
What challenges do you face as a grief counselor?
It’s hard to deal with so much loss and pain – especially the children. I have many good coping strategies, and great peers and support, so I’m able to manage all the trauma. But of course, there are moments when it can be particularly challenging.
Three examples come to mind:
- Years ago I attended, to provide support, the wake/funeral of a teen who died from a sudden heart attack. I was saddened that he had died, but what got to me was watching his parents receive people with a smile throughout the wake. I remember crying on my drive back to work and impulsively pulling into a grocery store to buy a plant I had seen hanging outside. I think I just needed to be surrounded by life. Ironically, that plant eventually took over my entire office.
- One of my hardest responses I’ve done is when I sat with a woman whose young nephew had drowned in her pool, on her watch. I remember her utter resignation. I remember thinking, “She doesn’t need me. She needs absolution from a priest.”
- Most recently, I went to watch the live musical production of “Dear Evan Hansen.” It deals with the suicide death of a teen early on. I was fine throughout the entire show…until the actor that played him came out on stage to take his final bow at the end of the show. I lost it. I was sobbing as people around me applauded and eventually exited. My husband even turned around a few times to ask if I was doing okay. I had been, until that actor’s bow made me think of all the kids we’d lost, especially to suicide. I could see each of their faces and remember each response. I had kept it all at bay, until that moment.
So yes, I love the work, and wouldn’t trade it, but gosh, we deal with a lot of tragedy.
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