Grief counselors help people cope with the loss of a spouse, parent, or other loved one. They may also help them manage feeling related to the loss of a nonhuman companion or an unborn child. Sometimes they help people with other types of loss, like the dissolution of a relationship.
Grief counselors may offer individual psychotherapy and/ or lead support groups. Poetry or arts therapies may be employed. Often, supportive listening is a big part of the job.
Grief counselors may work in hospices or other places where death commonly occurs. In these settings, they provide immediate comfort – they are on hand to talk to the bereaved during those first moments. They are sometimes found at social service organizations, funeral homes, or churches. Others work in private practice, helping people cope with feelings that emerge in the weeks and months after a loss.
The American Academy of Grief Counseling notes that therapy connotes something more advanced than just counseling. Grief counselors typically work with individuals with normal expressions of grief; the process can include educating and coaching as well as listening. Individuals with more profound responses will need help from a qualified therapist.
The amount of education is variable. A person without formal education in counseling may do some grief counseling on a volunteer basis. In order to lead a pet loss support group at the humane society, for example, they might need only to pass an on-site screening and training process. People with careers in human services may find themselves doing grief counseling on a limited basis. However, they won’t be doing psychotherapy.
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In general, a prospective counselor or therapist should plan on completing an undergraduate degree and then a master’s degree. Common undergraduate degree program preparation include a psychology degree or a human services degree. The degree may be in mental health counseling, clinical social work, or counseling psychology. (See: Selecting a Master's in Counseling Degree) If a person has a background in nursing, they may opt to become a psychiatric advanced practice nurse. Some people combine a passion for counseling with a religious calling or vocation and become pastoral counselors. This typically requires a doctoral degree. Other mental health professionals pursue doctoral degrees because they want to advance the field through research or study.
Fieldwork and post-degree experience may provide opportunities to work with the grieving. A graduate is usually required to work under supervision for a period of two to three years. He has regular meetings with a professional who offers consultation. In many cases, this person must evaluate him and recommend him to his state board for professional level licensing.
At this point, they will be qualified to work with people with a variety of needs and conditions – not just the bereaved. If the grief counselor wants additional education in supporting the grieving process, they may pursue a graduate certificate. Professional counselors also use continuing education to hone their skills in counseling the bereaved. In some cases, this leads to certification.
Master’s level counselors are state licensed. Licensing is in a broad category, for example, professional counseling or clinical social work.
A professional may also pursue voluntary certifications in grief counseling. The certification process may have various components like formal training, examination, and in some instances, submission of a portfolio or projects.
The American Academy of Grief Counseling offers different levels and categories of credentialing. There are multiple eligibility categories. A master’s is not necessarily required for Certified Grief Counselor, if one’s degree or career is clearly related. It is enough, for example to demonstrate an undergraduate degree in psychology or human services. In order to become a Grief Recovery Practitioner, though, a professional will need a master’s.
Once certified as Certified Grief Counselor, a person may do training for specialty certifications.
Practitioners may also seek certification through ADEC, The Thanatology Association. A significant amount of training (60 contact hours) is required even for the basic certification.