Grief counselors are licensed mental health professionals who specialize in helping people who are struggling with grief. Preparing to work in this field requires extensive higher education, followed by licensure and ongoing continuing education. If you want to pursue a career that involves providing mental health support to people who are mourning, start by discovering what it takes to become a grief counselor.
Qualifications Required to Work as a Counselor
In order to become a grief counselor, you'll first need to become a counselor. The path to becoming a professional counselor starts with earning a bachelor's degree, followed by a field-specific master's degree. From there, you'll need to gain practical work experience and become licensed and/or certified. The exact path you'll need to take will vary based on the requirements of the state in which you plan to practice.
You have to earn a bachelor's degree in order to qualify for a master's degree program in counseling, but you don't have to specialize in counseling in your undergraduate studies. Popular undergraduate degrees among people who plan to become counselors include areas of study such as psychology, sociology, social work, or human services.
Master's Degree in Counseling
A master's degree in counseling is mandatory in order to work as a counselor. Depending on your state's counselor licensure requirements, you may need to choose a program that's accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Even if your current state doesn't require counselors to graduate from a program with this credential, choosing one allows you maximum flexibility for where you can work and build your practice. Master's programs in counseling typically require:
- Two to three years of full-time graduate study
- 60 credit hours beyond a bachelor's degree
- Grade point average of at least 3.0 in graduate studies
- 700 hours of supervised clinical hours (via internships and/or practicums)
To boost your qualifications specific to grief counseling, choose electives related to bereavement, death, and/or dying. It's also a good idea to do your internship with a hospice provider or another bereavement-focused service.
State Licensure for Professional Counselors
State licensure is required to work as a professional counselor in the United States. Each state has a board that oversees the licensure process. The requirements vary somewhat from state to state, so you'll need to review the rules specific to your area. The website of the American Association of State Counseling Boards (AASCB) provides details on how to contact the appropriate agency in each state. Typical requirements include:
- Completion of educational requirements listed above
- Pass a specified comprehensive exam, such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE)
- Pass an exam specific to state regulations for counselors (commonly referred to as a jurisprudence exam)
- Earn pre-licensure certification so you can get experience working under the supervision of a licensed counselor
- Accumulate 2,000 - 3,000 hours of additional supervised work experience (a year of full-time work is 2,080 hours)
Once you meet your state's licensure requirements, you will become a professional counselor and will be able to go to work using the specific license you earned. The most common credential is Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), though it's also possible to become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor of Mental Health (LPCC), or Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC).
Grief-Specific Certification for Counselors
Once you have become a licensed counselor, you will be able to offer general counseling services, including grief counseling. However, if you want to specialize in grief counseling, it's a good idea to earn certification specific to that aspect of counseling. Doing so will not only better prepare you to help people navigate grief, but it will also help you earn the continuing education credits that are required to maintain your counseling license.
- The American Academy of Grief Counseling (AAGC) offers a 100-hour continuing education program for licensed counselors who wish to earn a certification in grief counseling.
- AAGC also offers specialty certifications such as child and adolescent grief counseling and Christian grief counseling.
Other Grief-Related Certifications and Credentials
While only licensed mental health professionals can work as professional counselors, many other occupations involve supporting people who are bereaved. For example, funeral directors, clergy, hospice caseworkers, social workers, and others are often involved in providing support to people who are bereaved. They need to know how to support people who are grieving, which means that they need grief counseling skills and training even though they're not professional grief counselors. Educational opportunities include:
- The AAGC grief counseling certifications discussed above are open to people in occupations like these.
- AAGC also offers support-focused (as opposed to counseling) certifications related to pet loss and general grief support.
- The Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) offers a thanatology certification for those who work with any aspect of death, dying, or bereavement.
- The Center for Loss and Life Transition offers a 150-hour death and grief studies certification program intended for caregivers.
These are just a few of the many options to consider. Explore a selection of online courses in grief support or reach out to the continuing education division of a local college, university, or community college to see what options they may have available.
Pursuing a Career as a Bereavement Counselor
Working as a grief counselor is a noble endeavor. Most professional counselors provide a full scope of counseling services, which includes (but is not limited to) grief counseling. If you're truly called to work with bereaved individuals, you may want to specialize in grief counseling. There are bereavement-focused job opportunities for professional counselors to work with hospice providers, hospitals, mental health service providers, and other agencies. Whether you pursue this path or incorporate grief counseling into your full-service counseling practice, the work you do will help people navigate extraordinarily painful and difficult circumstances.