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Grief Counselor

Explore the grief counselor career

grief counselor

While grief itself is a universal experience, each individual’s response to it is highly personal. Many times, individuals may feel unable to deal with their grief or to express the emotions associated with a loss in their life. They may think the range of emotions they are experiencing is abnormal.

To be supportive when someone is grieving takes compassion and understanding, skills that many of us must learn through personal, challenging situations. People get support during times of grief from family, friends, ministers, or other support groups in their lives. These laypersons, however, may not always understand the complexity and range of emotions associated with a loss, or know how long these emotions should last. Sometimes, after the initial shock of the loss and after friends and family have gone home, individuals will choose to seek out professional grief counseling.

What does a grief counselor do?

A grief counselor is a specially trained professional whose primary goal is to help people cope with grief and maintain the best possible mental health while dealing with grief. The job of a grief and bereavement counselor is not to judge or to try and fit people into identifiable categories or stages of grief, but to listen and to help people develop strategies and tools for coping.

This technique is called active listening. When working with a client going through the grieving process, counselors will always try to be empathetic listeners, allowing clients to express their emotions and thoughts. Through this process they will be able to understand what individuals are feeling and how they seem to be coping with the loss.

Grief vs. Bereavement

Bereavement, while sometimes used interchangeably with grief, typically refers more to the state of loss, or being in grief, whereas grief is the emotions associated with the loss. Bereavement literally means to be deprived by death, and so bereavement counseling focuses on grief being experienced due to the death of a person or pet. Grief counseling then encompasses the wider range of grief related stress, including diagnosis with a disease or a debilitating injury.

Grief counseling is often recommended for people experiencing grief resulting from a devastating loss. This can range from the death of a loved one, to the loss of a job or a home and social status, to receiving the news of a terminal illness or loss of health.

Knowing that grief affects not only the emotional responses of a person, but also the behavioral, physical and psychological processes is an important aspect of the counselors’ training. Physical responses such as loss of appetite, inability to concentrate, and a change in sleeping patterns, are all completely normal. The job of a grief counselor is to help people accept loss, providing them with time to grieve, and to get back to leading a happy life.

A person’s level of cognitive development greatly affects his or her ability to process grief, how he or she is affected by grief, and what steps he or she needs to take to achieve mental health. Children do not have the experience or emotional tools to process grief in the same way adults do; and their likelihood for long-term trauma is greater. (see Childhood Developmental Psychology).

Therapy dogs as grief counseling

therapy dogs

With the myriad of modern resources available to mental health professionals, the use of a dog may seem like an antiquated idea. However, the opposite couldn’t be more true. Terminally ill patients, children patients, people in therapy, people confined to wheelchairs, and homebound patients have long been shown to have a positive endorphin response to being around and petting dogs. There is a natural chemical reaction in the brain that makes people feel better and smile when they are petting an animal.

Read more about Therapy Dogs as Grief Counseling.

Grief counseling does not necessarily need to take place in an office. Counseling sessions might take place in the bereaving individual’s home. They could take place in a park or garden, in a chapel, or a hospital. In terms of employment, grief counselors work for a number of state and non-profit agencies, for schools and hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, and in private practice.

It is also common for grief counselors to work with groups of people and not just an individual. They counsel a family after the loss of a family member or upon a family member’s diagnosis with a terminal disease. Grief counselors will also go into schools and work with large groups of students when the school loses a student in a drunk driving accident, for example, or commits suicide. Group counseling sessions can also take the form of a support group, facilitated by a grief counselor. Military personnel, cancer survivors, single parents, and others going through a grieving process all commonly benefit from group counseling sessions.

The nature of the loss or circumstance of the death also has a large impact on how individuals process grief. For example, when an elderly person loses his or her lifetime spouse, or when a child loses a parent in a tragic accident, lead to more extreme levels of grief and more complex grieving situations.

While the job of a counselor is to provide help and support, he or she also must be able to recognize when a client needs to be referred to more advanced psychiatric therapy. If the normal coping process is compromised or shut down, the counselor may be faced with a situation commonly referred to as “complicated grief.” Complicated grief is when the individual is getting worse over time and not better, especially when there is a worsening of physical symptoms and behavioral problems, and the grief begins to affect that person’s other relationships in negative ways. The grief counselor may be required to recommend additional intervention when a person is having extended difficulty with the loss.

Of course, being able to recognize and counsel someone through normal grief is the essence of one’s work as a grief counselor. Normal grief means experiencing the range of emotions that everyone goes through in some form, although they may not be in any specific order or time frame. Emotions such as numbness, anger, sorrow, relief, guilt, and loneliness, to name a few, are all part of this normal grieving process.

The goals of a grief counselor

The goals of a grief counselor vary depending on the coping ability of the client and at what point after a loss the client enters counseling. However, the process entails several constant factors or goals. In working with a typical client, the goal of the counselor will be to:

  • Educate the client about the normal grieving process. Provide information about the different stages of grief, about the amount of time the process takes, and resources available to grieving individuals.
  • Actively listen to clients and offer nonjudgmental support. Allow clients to express their feelings about the loss. Your job is to validate their thoughts and emotions, to be an emotional sounding board, and provide emotional support during this process.
  • Assist clients in creating a plan to move on with their life. You will suggest coping techniques, ideas to overcome physical obstacles, and help them adjust to life after loss.
  • Help clients find a way to memorialize the deceased. Help them establish a healthy “bond” with the deceased while still moving on with their life. This may be through letter writing, daily ritual, or rituals on special occasions such as holidays and anniversaries.

Working continually with those that are grieving can take a toll emotionally on counselors. Grief and bereavement counselors must have good mental health habits themselves, and be strong and know when to seek outside help to deal with all of the sadness they are experiencing through their clients. Those pursuing this career will need to resolve any personal grief issues they may have, so that they will be prepared to deal with other people’s issues.

If you have a passion for helping others, the ability to actively listen, and enjoy the study of the human mind and behavior, then grief counseling could be a perfect career path for you. For information on programs that prepare you for a career in grief counseling, contact schools offering degrees in mental health counseling or psychology.

Counselors will receive training on a variety of conditions and techniques. Schools offering degree programs in psychology will provide you with more information on careers, the specific licensing requirements of each field and in each individual state, and the type of coursework you can expect. With the growing acceptance of mental health counseling world wide, and its increased emphasis on prevention, now is an opportune time to enter the field of grief counseling.

Mental Health Counseling Schools & Colleges
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5 Program(s) Found
The Chicago School of Professional Psychology , Online (campus option available)
  • Designated a 2015 Military Friendly School by Victory Media for the 4th consecutive year.
  • Listed on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll in 2013, for the sixth consecutive year.
  • Links students to hundreds of training opportunities ( beyond their traditional internships and practicum) at their many “partner agencies” in each of their local communities. 
  • Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).
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Good for Working Adults
  • Online Courses
  • Flexible Scheduling
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5 Program(s) Found
Argosy University , Online (campus option available)
  • Designated as a 2015 Military Friendly® School by Victory Media, publishers of G.I. Jobs®.
  • Each program is designed to instill the knowledge, ethical values, and interpersonal skills of professional practice and to foster values of social responsibility.
  • Offers several flexible learning options, including a blended format that combines campus and online learning.
  • Several scholarship opportunities are available for students who qualify.
  • Features a competency-based MBA program that allows students to test out of subjects based on prior professional experience.
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  • Online Courses
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5 Program(s) Found

Regent University prepares students with the knowledge to excel and the faith to live with purpose. Our 20,000 alumni, from more than 110 countries, are changing the world as accomplished professionals. Named a top-15 school nationally for online bachelor's programs (U.S. News & World Report, 2015), Regent is among the most affordable undergraduate Christian colleges (CCCU 2015). Fully accredited, challenging programs are available online and on campus. New classes begin every eight weeks.

  • Online Courses
2 Program(s) Found
South University , Montgomery
  • Began in 1899 as Draughon’s Practical Business College.
  • Features campuses that are heavily engaged in their respective communities, providing professional service from students and faculty.
  • Offers financial aid, scholarships, and counseling for both active and post-duty military students.
  • Has 15 campuses across the United States, as well as 4 art institutes in North Carolina and Texas.
  • Accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).
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2 Program(s) Found

•        Ranked #4 among the 2015 Best Regional Universities in the Midwest by U.S. News & World Report.

•        Designated as 2015 Military Friendly School by U.S. News & World Report.

•        Student to faculty ratio of 12:1, with an average class size of 21.

•        85% of faculty holds a doctorate or terminal degree in their field.

•        Regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association (NCA).

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  • Online Courses
5 Program(s) Found
  • 95% alumni satisfaction rate.
  • Currently holds more than 500 professional alliances, including 19 of the top Fortune 100 companies.
  • Courses are taught by expert faculty, with 86% of professors possessing a doctoral degree.
  • Offers credit for prior experience and learning, as well as scholarships, accelerated programs, and several other ways to help reduce tuition costs.
  • Regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association (NCA).
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  • Online Courses
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5 Program(s) Found
University of Phoenix , Online (campus option available)
  • Provides career services that help students find careers that match their interests and map out a personalized career plan.
  • Offers mentorships and networking opportunities through an Alumni Association of 800,000+ graduates.
  • Has flexible start dates and class schedules.
  • Offers special military rates and special advisors who have a military background.
  • Gives students the chance to earn credits for applicable military training and education.
  • Locations nationwide and online options.
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1 Program(s) Found
  • Designated a 2015 Military Friendly School by Victory Media.
  • Founded in 1885 as one of Minnesota’s first business schools.
  • Features small class-sizes, experienced faculty, and flexible scheduling. 
  • Teaches with a technologically-focused learning model that helps to enhance the student experience.
  • Offers online, on campus, and hybrid classes, with 19 locations across Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
  • Nationally accredited by Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS).
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5 Program(s) Found
  • Established in 1952 to train practitioners to apply the idea that responsible practitioners must advocate to change the social conditions that affect community health and well-being.
  • Has an Institute on Social Exclusion where students may work on ongoing research, program development, grant writing, and advocacy.
  • Educates culturally-competent clinicians in social justice for gender and sexual minorities at its LQBTQ Mental Health and Inclusion Center.
  • Offers up to 90% off textbook prices at their Chicago campus.
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3 Program(s) Found
  • A private, non-sectarian four-year college with  online degree programs as well as campuses in Buffalo and Rochester, NY.
  • Its student-faculty ratio is 14:1, and 46.9% of its classes have fewer than 20 students.
  • Each online course spans seven weeks, the same length as accelerated on-ground courses.
  • Offers active military a discounted tuition rate  for undergraduate programs.
  • Founded in 1875 by the Sisters of Saint Joseph as an institute for the preparation of teachers.
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Good for Working Adults
  • Accredited
  • Online Courses
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  • Accelerated Programs
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  • Transferable Credits