Becoming a Grief Counselor

What is Grief Counseling?

Grief counseling is a type of counseling designed specifically to help those who have recently lost a loved one deal with that loss. It’s not always approached from a religious point of view, but it can be. There are many different approaches a grief counselor can use to help a person understand and accept the loss has occurred. This can include prayer, but it can also include things like journaling, art therapy, and pet therapy.

Grief counseling isn’t just about the loss of a loved one due to death. It can also help a person work through the loss of a strong friendship or the loss of a beloved family pet. Everyone experiences grief at some point in their lives, and while some people may want to retreat into themselves to process it, others may need to share their grief and work through it with someone else. That is where grief counseling comes into play.

Grief Counselor Duties and Qualities

A grief counselor is generally a trained, licensed counselor who may see a variety of different patients. Some may need grief counseling, while others may need counseling in areas of addiction, marriage, or for anxiety. A counselor generally won't go into business simply to serve as a grief counselor, although it’s possible that they may specialize in working with those dealing with grief.

A minister or chaplain may also serve as a grief counselor. Like therapists and other types of counselors, ministers may need to offer grief counseling to the members of their congregation when a member passes away.

A grief counselor will help their patients work through the five different stages of loss. They will start out dealing with the denial of the loss, then the anger that it has occurred. Next, they will help the person through the bargaining stage, where they try to do anything possible to have the loved one return. Depression follows, which is one of the most difficult parts of grief counseling. Finally, the grief counselor guides their patient into acceptance.

Reaching acceptance isn’t necessarily the end of the patient’s grief counseling— sometimes, it takes years for a person to truly process the loss and move forward from it.

Requirements to Become a Grief Counselor

Becoming a grief counselor takes years of education, practical experience and licensing. In order to become a fully qualified and licensed grief counselor (and potentially open your own practice), you’ll need to complete the following general steps:

  • Complete your bachelor’s degree (typically in psychology, counseling or social work).
  • Earn a Master's degree in counseling or counseling psychology.
  • Complete two years of supervised practical experience in the field.
  • Apply for licensure. See the National Board of Certified Counselors for licensing information.

Religious Requirements

There are no religious requirements to become a grief counselor, although many choose to approach grief counseling from a religious point of view. If that is the case, the general requirements call for you to have a strong faith and a deep understanding of scripture. There’s typically no requirement to become ordained to offer biblical grief counseling. Since most counselors have already obtained a Ph.D. in Psychology or Counseling to meet state licensing requirements, and many churches require a bachelor’s or Master’s of Religion as a prerequisite to ordination, most grief counselors who serve their church do not pursue ordination (due to the time commitment).

Note: Those who practice Biblical or Nouthetic counseling, a form of counseling that relies only on scripture and nothing else, may act as grief counselors with no training at all.

Educational Requirements for Grief Counselors

The first step towards becoming a grief counselor is to enroll in a bachelor’s program. Most future counselors are going to want to look for a psychology program, although some may choose to study psychiatry or sociology, both of which can assist a grief counselor. There are some colleges that offer a degree in counseling, but for most, the degree offered is a bachelor’s of psychology with a focus on counseling.

If you major in psychology, you’re going to study how people behave. You’ll learn what drives a person’s actions and how you can understand this motivation. You will study behavior theory, conflict resolution, communication, and more.

In psychiatry, the focus is more about mental disorders and how these disorders can be treated. Grief counselors usually don’t major in psychiatry because it’s not focused on counseling as such. However, some of the courses offered in the psychiatry catalog can be helpful.

Sociology is the study of society—that is, it often focuses more on groups and how individuals relate to groups. Students learn how people interact and what drives that interaction. A sociology program may form a good basis for a grief counselor, but it really depends on what courses are offered.

Most often, a future grief counselor will major in psychology and take courses from sociology, psychiatry, social work, and religion to fill in their electives. Some may even want to do a minor course of study in one of these areas or double major.

Earning a Master's Degree in Counseling

Once you’ve successfully completed your undergraduate degree, you’ll need to enroll in a good graduate program in counseling. These programs generally take two years and focus on an area of specialization. This is where you can start taking courses that go into much more detail about the grief process and how one deals with it. You will most likely have to write a thesis and successfully defend it in order to graduate. Many graduate programs have some sort of practical or clinical component to them, which means that you will gain some practical experience while working with counselors in the field.

Following your master’s degree, most professionals strongly recommend that you get your doctorate in counseling. While that’s not always necessary, especially if you don’t want to open your own practice, the skills and further training you’ll gain will be invaluable in your career.

The Importance of Accreditation

Before enrolling in any university, make certain that it is accredited. Undergraduate programs may be accredited by one of a number of different third-party evaluation services. As long as the university is accredited by a recognized organization, your degree should be seen as valid and be accepted to graduate programs and by employers.

When you go into your graduate and doctoral degrees, however, you will want to make certain the program is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP). This organization is the only one that is recognized by certification and licensing boards.

Masters Program Goals and Objectives

The goal of a good master’s degree in counseling is to prepare graduates to enter the workforce with the knowledge, training, and skills necessary to help people work through their issues. Counselors will know how to identify different emotional issues, communication successful with a patient to address these issues, and then continue to provide the support necessary for the patient to fully come to terms with the issues.

Earning Practical Experience

During your graduate and doctoral studies, you will have the chance to do internships and other types of practical experience. In many programs, these residencies are required. You will also need to have several years’ worth of practical experience under your belt in order to become a licensed counselor. This period of supervised work can be incredibly helpful for you since it gives you a chance to put your education and training to use in an environment where a licensed, experienced counselor is available for help.

Licensing and Certification

In order to become a fully licensed and certified grief counselor, you must meet all of the requirements laid out by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). The NBCC certifies counselors in all fields. For the NBCC to recognize you as a National Certified Counselor, you must meet these guidelines:

  • Hold a master's degree in counseling.
  • Earn at least two years of supervised practical experience in counseling.
  • Successfully pass the national certification exam.

Note: Some states have state certification programs that are different than what is offered by the NBCC. However, this type of certification is usually only valid in the state in which it was received. An NBCC certification, on the other hand, is generally accepted by any state and makes it much easier to relocate your practice or find employment if you move to a different state.

Professional Associations for Grief Counselors

If you plan on specializing in grief counseling, its recommended that you engage with organizations that were formed to help support and regulate professionals in your field. The American Academy of Grief Counseling (AAGC), for example, offers a number of different resources and publication opportunities, along with their own certification. This certification is not viewed as an equivalent to the NBCC certification, but it adds an extra level of credibility to any professional. Those who are a minister or other type of religious leader may want to become certified through the AAGC because the training does not require a masters degree, and can still help advance their career.

The Association for Death Education and Counseling, sometimes called the Thanatology Association, is another organization in which grief counselors may wish to seek membership. They offer grief counseling certification, although again, it’s not as difficult to obtain and isn’t considered an equivalent to the NBCC certification.

Additional organizational resources for grief counselors and those in need of assistance are listed below:

Organization/AssociationContact Information

The Compassionate Friends

1000 Jorie Blvd. Suite 140
Oak Brook, IL 60523
(877) 969-0010

2934½ Beverly Glen Circle, #266
Los Angeles, CA 90077

National Alliance for Grieving Children

900 SE Ocean Blvd., Suite 130D
Stuart, FL 34994
(866) 432-1542

Family Lives on Foundation

411 Eagleview Boulevard, Suite 110
Exton, PA 19341
(610) 458-1690