Up to one-third of people who have experienced a significant loss (such as the death of a partner or child) report suffering from major, adverse effects on their physical and/or mental health. Roughly one-quarter of bereaved partners suffer from clinical depression and anxiety.1 Grief and bereavement are some of the most challenging and complicated issues to cope with, yet all people must confront grief at some point.
If you are an empathetic individual who is looking for a career that would enable you to truly make a positive difference in the lives of others in your community, then you might consider pursuing a job in counseling. As a grief and bereavement counselor, you could help uplift people who are experiencing some of the most challenging times in their life. You may ask, ”What does a grief counselor do and what’s the process of how to become a grief counselor?” This career guide explains.
What Is a Grief Counselor?
A grief counselor providing services within a clinical mental health setting is a licensed clinician who works with people of all ages who have experienced the loss of someone close to them, such as a partner, parent, child or friend. When discussing grief and bereavement, it’s not uncommon to hear references to the five stages of grief, as defined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.2 These five stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
It’s often thought that grieving individuals move through each of these stages in order. Yet, it’s important to understand that grief is highly complex, and everyone experiences it in a different way. Some people might not experience all five stages, and some people may move back and forth between two stages (such as depression and anger).
Although the work of Kubler-Ross was considered significant in her day and has been widely embraced by society, the study and evolution of grief theory has expanded to a rich evidence-based approach to this field of counseling. Today, students who are working to become grief counselors will study more modern, widely used grief theories. Modern grief theories tend to recognize that grief does not necessarily occur in stages in every person, but rather is comprised of fluid, overlapping and non-linear processes.3
Another way to understand grief is its day-to-day effects on the mind, body and spirit. The complex emotions associated with grief can result in any of the following responses:4
- Demonstrating unreasonable, unjustified anger toward someone
- Having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Having trouble eating or overeating
- Physical symptoms such as headache and upset stomach
The bottom line is that everyone experiences grief in a different way, and the job of a grief counselor is to customize the counseling approach to suit the needs of the individual patient. The majority of bereaved individuals will be able to appropriately manage their grief within a year after the loss.
A small percentage of bereaved individuals, however, can develop prolonged grief disorder. Prolonged grief disorder is a recognized mental health disorder in which the patient remains preoccupied with and profoundly affected by the loss for a prolonged period of time. Affected individuals tend to experience difficulties with day-to-day functioning.4
What Does a Grief Counselor Do?
A grief counselor’s main goals are to help the patient come to terms with the loss, practice healthy coping techniques, adjust to a new life, build new relationships and develop an adjusted self-identity. Counselors can also help their patients by establishing a safe, non-judgmental therapy space and assuring their patients that their responses to bereavement are perfectly natural. Although grief never completely goes away (people will always miss someone they’ve lost), bereaved individuals can learn to live with their grief, adapt and move forward.
Some of the specific tasks a bereavement counselor may do include the following:5,6
- Establish a rapport with the client to let them know they can trust the counselor and open up about their emotions
- Conduct an assessment of the client, including their responses to bereavement, their challenges and needs
- Develop a treatment plan that includes specific therapeutic techniques, which may include cognitive behavioral therapy
- Encourage the client to talk about their lost loved one, which can help them process the loss and accept their emotional responses
- Help the client transform negative feelings into positive ones, such as by moving away from feeling guilty and instead cherishing the good memories of their lost loved one
In addition, these formally trained and typically licensed mental health counselors routinely perform case management duties. Some counselors may run their own practice, which means they also attend to the various aspects of operating a small business.
Becoming a Grief Counselor
Becoming a grief counselor is a rewarding journey. If you’re still in high school, talk to your guidance counselor about adding courses in psychology, communications and any health-related courses, if available at your school. As you approach your graduation date, you’ll need to plan on earning a bachelor’s degree.
You do not need to earn a bachelor’s degree that is specifically focused on grief counseling, although you certainly could do so if you wish. For example, you could earn a general counseling or psychology degree without a concentration. After graduating with your baccalaureate mental health degree, you’ll need to earn a master’s degree in order to qualify to pursue licensure.
Other options include earning a doctoral degree and/or a graduate certificate, although these are optional. In addition to earning a master’s degree, you’ll need to complete a supervised clinical internship and then pass a national certification exam in order to obtain state licensure.
Earning Your Undergraduate Mental Health Degree
After high school, the first step in the process of how to become a grief counselor is to earn a bachelor’s degree. There is some flexibility regarding the type of degree you can earn, although it should be a related degree such as a psychology, counseling, behavioral health or a social work degree. At this stage in your education, it isn’t necessary to choose a degree with a concentration; you could opt to take a general mental health degree if you prefer.
Your undergraduate mental health degree will enable you to develop a firm foundation of mental health competencies. You’ll explore the fundamentals of human behaviors and thought patterns. You’ll also study the scientific underpinnings of the profession, such as appropriate procedures in scientific observations, data collection and analysis.
Take advantage of your time as an undergraduate to pursue internship and job shadowing opportunities at mental health practices. These opportunities will give you a behind-the-scenes look at what clinicians do and will help you definitively determine whether you’ve selected the right career path for you.
Earning Your Master’s Degree in Mental Health
Because all states require mental health counselors to be licensed in order to work in private practice, you will almost certainly want to enroll in a master’s degree program right after graduating with your bachelor’s degree.
One option is the Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, which can qualify graduates to sit for the state licensing exam. Another option is to choose a concentration in grief and bereavement counseling (depending on the university you choose). A Master of Science in Mental Health and Wellness with an Emphasis in Grief and Bereavement degree will enable you to take a deep dive into the theories and therapies involved with grief counseling.
However, depending on the school and specific program you choose, that type of degree might not necessarily lead to licensure, so be sure to double-check that. Do note that it’s certainly possible to practice as a grief counselor without clinical licensure, although employment opportunities will be somewhat limited. Furthermore, while some employers (e.g. hospice organizations) might not require clinical licensure, they do still require or express a preference for master’s-prepared counselors.
Although the specific curriculum will vary from one university and program to the next, you could generally expect to study topics such as the following:
- The history and evolution of grief theory research, including forms of loss and expressions of grief
- Biopsychosocial responses to grief and loss, including healthy strategies for coping with grief
- Theories and case studies on sociocultural aspects of death, dying, grief management and end of life challenges
It’s customary for master’s degree programs to require students to complete a master’s thesis, although not all programs may have such a requirement. A master’s thesis is usually about 40 to 80 pages in length, and it’s typically completed over the course of two semesters. You are not expected to complete original research for a master’s thesis.
Should You Earn a Doctoral Degree?
A doctoral degree, such as a PhD, is required of aspiring psychologists; however, grief counselors do not need to earn one in order to obtain licensure and work in private practice. You might decide to return to school for your PhD at some point in the future, however.
Earning a doctorate in counseling can allow you to refresh your skills and knowledge, deepen your understanding of how best to help your clients and establish your professional credibility in the field. It may also enable you to pursue a teaching position at a university.
Should You Earn a Graduate Certificate?
Another credential that you should strongly consider is a graduate certificate. A graduate certificate tends to take less time to earn than a master’s degree (exact lengths of programs vary by school and by the student’s schedule). However, do note that you’ll still need to earn a master’s in order to qualify to pursue licensure.
A graduate certificate can serve as an effective supplement to your master’s degree. This is particularly true if you earned a master’s degree in counseling, but not specifically in grief and bereavement counseling. A graduate certificate in grief and bereavement counseling will allow you to narrow your professional focus and build advanced knowledge in the area.
By earning a graduate certificate in grief and bereavement, you’re demonstrating to potential employers that you are serious about advancing in your field and helping patients to the best of your abilities. A graduate certificate requires fewer courses than a master’s degree, as it does not confer a degree. In addition, it doesn’t usually require the completion of a major project, such as a capstone course or a lengthy research paper.
Completing Your Supervised Clinical Hours
Even after completing your master’s degree in mental health, you won’t officially become a licensed mental health counselor just yet. All states require licensure for mental health counselors before they can work in private practice. In addition to your academic credentials, you will need to prove that you have completed the required number of hours of supervised clinical experience in order to be eligible to pursue licensure.
The number of supervised field hours varies from state to state. Check with your state’s board of licensure to determine which steps you need to take and how many hours you’ll need to complete. As an aspiring grief and bereavement counselor, you may find opportunities to gain clinical hours within hospitals, social service agencies and community outreach programs.
During the course of your training, an experienced, licensed counselor will serve as your mentor and supervisor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and take notes. In addition, ask for feedback on your performance from time to time.
You can expect to conduct individual counseling sessions under supervision. You’ll perform assessments, develop treatment plans, administer counseling and provide appropriate referrals. You may also conduct group counseling sessions, such as a support group for bereaved individuals.
Obtain Licensure as a Mental Health Counselor
After graduation and passing the licensing exam, you will begin your supervised clinical hours in the profession leading, eventually, to independent licensure.
You should set aside plenty of time to study for the exam ahead of your test date. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) offers test preparation materials available for purchase. There are also other preparation materials offered by third-party entities, such as practice tests and flash cards.
After you successfully pass the exam and complete any other requirements established by your state, you’ll be ready to begin practicing as a mental health counselor who specializes in grief counseling. Note that you’ll need to complete continuing education credits periodically to keep your license active.
Is There a Demand for Grief Counselors?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which tracks employment data in the U.S., groups grief counselors in the same category as substance abuse, behavioral disorder and all other mental health counselors. According to the BLS, the job growth rate for mental health counselors is expected to be 23% through 2030. At this rate of growth, about 41,000 new job openings for these professionals are expected to become available each year through the end of the decade.7
Grand Canyon University celebrates your aspirations to devote your career toward helping other people. In addition to our many psychology and counseling undergraduate degrees, GCU is pleased to offer the Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, the Master of Science in Mental Health and Wellness with an Emphasis in Grief and Bereavement degree and the Graduate Certificate of Completion in Mental Health and Wellness with an Emphasis in Grief and Bereavement. Emerge with strong competencies in counseling theories and applications, professional ethics and grief coping strategies.
1 National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, BMJ, Bereavement in adult life in August 2022
2 Biography, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in December 2022
3 National Library of Medicine, Omega, Cautioning Health-Care Professionals in December 2022
4 American Psychiatric Association, Prolonged Grief Disorder in December 2022
5 BetterHelp, Can Grief Counseling Help? Definition and How It Works in December 2022
6 WebMD, What Is Grief Counseling? in December 2022
7 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors, retrieved on 02/01/2022.
Approved by an Instructor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Dec. 14, 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.