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. For more information see Childhood Developmental Psychology.
Therapy dogs as grief counseling
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.
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.