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

Research the requirements to become a grief 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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Do I Want to Be a Grief Counselor?

Grief counselors, also known as grief therapists or bereavement counselors, are mental health professionals who specialize 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.

Job Requirements

Many professionals can be qualified to earn certification and work as grief counselors. This includes nurses, physicians, ministers, psychologists, mental health counselors and funeral directors. Also qualified for the position are individuals who have completed bachelor's or master's degree programs in relevant fields. The following table outlines common requirements to become a grief counselor:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Bachelor's degree is sufficient*; a graduate degree may be preferred or required in some cases**
Degree Field Grief counseling, thanatology, grief therapy*
Licensure and Certification Licensure requirements vary by state**, certification may improve career outlook*
Key Skills Strong speaking and listening skills, compassion, empathy*

Sources: *American Academy of Grief Counseling, **Los Angeles County.

Step 1: 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.

Success Tip

  • Take communications courses. Communication is one of the most important elements of a grief counselor's job, so an aspiring counselor should hone 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: Earn a 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: 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, so aspiring grief counselors should consult with their local government agency to learn about any applicable licensure requirements they need to meet.

Step 4: Obtain Voluntary Certification

In order to be recognized as a specialist in death and bereavement counseling, an aspiring grief counselor should attend specialized certification training and certification program 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: Continue Education

Certified grief counselors must apply for recertification to maintain their status. Recertification 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 recertification 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.

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 fellow in thanatology is available through the ADEC.
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