How to Become a Grief Counselor: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Jan 06, 2020

Research the requirements to become a grief counselor, sometimes called a bereavement counselor. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career in grief counseling.

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  • 0:01 Becoming a Grief Counselor
  • 1:27 Step 1: Bachelor's Degree
  • 2:12 Step 2: Master's Degree
  • 2:42 Step 3: Licensure
  • 3:17 Step 4: Voluntary…
  • 3:56 Step 5: Continue Education

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Should I Become a Grief Counselor?

Degree Level Bachelor's degree; graduate degree may be preferred
Degree Field Grief counseling, thanatology, grief therapy
Licensure and Certification Licensure requirements vary by state; voluntary certification available
Key Skills Strong speaking and listening skills; compassion and empathy; organizational skills for keeping records; positive attitude
Salary $44,630 (2018 median for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors)*

*Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2018)

A grief counselor, also known as a grief therapists or bereavement counselor, is a mental health professional who specializes in helping patients cope with the loss of a friend, family member, or pet. Grief counselors work one-on-one with patients throughout the mourning process and help them deal with the wide range of emotions that accompany the death of a loved one. Constantly working with others who are dealing with grief could cause negative reactions in some counselors. Nurses, physicians, ministers, psychologists, mental health counselors, and funeral directors are among professionals who, with appropriate training, might qualify as grief counselors.

According to the American Academy of Grief Counseling, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and ONET Online, there are common requirements for grief counselors. A bachelor's degree in grief counseling, thanatology, or grief therapy is required, though a graduate degree may be preferred. Licensure requirements vary by state and voluntary certification available. Key skills for grief counselors include strong speaking and listening skills, compassion, empathy, organizational skills for keeping records, and a positive attitude. In May 2018 the BLS reported that the median salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $44,630 per year.

How to Become a Grief Counselor

Step 1: Bachelor's-Level Grief Counseling Degree

The first step towards becoming a grief counselor is to earn a bachelor's degree. Grief counselors must typically earn a degree in a relevant field, such as social services, psychology, or counseling. Coursework in such fields may cover concepts like abnormal psychology, social psychology, behavior, family guidance, or human services. An internship experience may also be required for such programs.

Here's a success tip: take communications courses. Communication is one of the most important elements of a grief counselor's job so an aspiring counselor should perfect his or her speaking and listening skills as much as possible. Taking communications courses while in college can help an aspiring counselor learn effective methods of communication.

Step 2: Master's Degree

This may not be mandatory in all situations, but certain employers and states may prefer or require that their grief counselors hold a relevant graduate degree. Master's degree programs with an emphasis in grief counseling may be offered in subjects like thanatology or gerontology. Graduate certificate programs in grief counseling may also be available as part of broader programs, such as a master's degree program in community health. Counseling education is also a field that is related to grief counseling.

Step 3: Licensure

The third step towards becoming a grief counselor is to obtain licensure. While no specific license exists for grief counselors, some jurisdictions require professionals in this field to hold a state-issued license in a similar field. For example, Los Angeles County, California, requires grief counselors to hold a current license as a nurse, psychologist, or counselor. The requirements vary widely by state. Prospective grief counselors should consult with their local government agency to learn about any applicable licensure requirements that must be met.

Step 4: Voluntary Grief Counseling Certification

In order to be recognized as a specialist in death and bereavement counseling, an aspiring grief counselor should attend specialized certification training and programs in the field. The American Institute of Health Care Professionals oversees the American Academy of Grief Counseling, which offers several training programs for aspiring grief counselors. Specialized programs include child and adolescent grief counseling and pet loss grief counseling. Upon completion of one of these programs, students will be certified as grief counselors. The Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) also offers voluntary certification.

Step 5: Continued Grief Counselor Training

Certified grief counselors must apply for re-certification to maintain their status. Re-certification requires paying a fee and logging a set number of continuing education hours approved by the certifying organization. Hours can come from a variety of areas, such as taking courses that help the grief counselor stay current on bereavement issues; attending seminars; writing or publishing on the subject of grief counseling; formally educating others; or serving on committees. The goal of re-certification is to keep grief counselors active and up to date within bereavement counseling, as well as to allow candidates to explore how to apply the training to their own interests and specific line of work. In addition, continuing education courses may also be a way to improve your career outlook by providing you with new skills and knowledge as well as professional relationships in your area of expertise.

Here's a success tip: consider a fellowship. After working as a certified grief counselor for three years, a counselor can attend a fellowship program offered by the American Academy of Grief Counseling. Fellowship status is awarded for taking additional continuing education courses involving complex topics such as multicultural mourning practices, mourning children, and addressing the needs of the dying. Not only will the fellowship status contribute to a more specialized form of counseling, it will also provide candidates with even more insight as to how to be of service to those in need. A fellowship in thanatology is available through the ADEC.

The steps towards becoming a grief counselor include earning a bachelor's degree, earning a master's degree, obtaining licensure, attending training programs for voluntary certification, and continuing education to maintain certification.

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