A bereavement counselor, or grief counselor, counsels individuals who have suffered a personal loss. Topics of study in grief counseling and thanatology programs include the psychological impact of death and dying and advanced counseling strategies. All programs include classroom work, and some include group projects and on-site training.
Prerequisites for a certificate program include a high school diploma or equivalent. Advanced certificate programs generally require students to be licensed or certified healthcare workers with professional experience. Admission to a master's degree program in thanatology will require a bachelor's degree.
The educational requirements for professional grief counselor certification can differ from one granting body to another; in some cases, a certificate will be adequate. In others, a master's degree is required.
Career Studies Certificate
A career studies certificate program in grief and bereavement counseling is offered at the community college level. This program is designed for those already working in the human services field or who wish to work in facilities providing hospice care, AIDS treatment, funeral services or similar care. Students in a grief and bereavement counseling program take classes that will help them gain a better understanding of the psychological, emotional and physical aspects of working with people who are dying as well as their families. On-site training may also be required. Students may take classes similar to these:
- Introduction to the field of human services
- Skills for treating mental health problems
- Understanding grief and loss
- Sociology of death and dying
- Psychology of death and dying
Advanced Certificate in Grief Counseling
Grief and bereavement counseling advanced certificate programs are post-baccalaureate programs offered by four-year colleges and universities. They are designed for healthcare professionals who often work with individuals who have experienced the death of a loved one, or other significant loss. Licensed registered nurses, social workers, professional counselors, ordained ministers, funeral home directors, physicians, school counselors and other healthcare professionals are eligible to apply. Students enrolled in a grief and bereavement counseling advanced certificate program learn about the various forms of grief and its assessment and about theoretical and practical applications of counseling and intervention strategies. Topics studies may include:
- Symptoms of grief
- Counseling intervention tactics
- Complicated grief
- Childhood and loss
- Hospice care
Master of Arts in Thanatology
This graduate degree is designed for aspiring mental health counselors and others who wish to work with terminally ill people or those grieving a loss. It's also appropriate for those wishing to educate others about death and dying. This program will meet the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) certification requirements for those wishing to be certified as grief counselors, grief therapists or death educators. Classes explore different aspects of death and dying and techniques for understanding and counseling the grieving. Here are some typical courses:
- Counseling the bereaved
- Multicultural views of thanatology
- Principles and practices in hospice care
- Care for the dying
Individuals with a career studies certificate in grief and bereavement counseling may further their education by enrolling in an associate's or bachelor's degree program in social work, counseling or a healthcare field.
Individuals with an M.A. in Thanatology can obtain ADEC certification and become certified grief counselors or therapists, or death educators at all levels for a variety of different institutions and organizations. They may also wish to continue their education by pursuing a Ph.D. in counseling with a concentration in grief and bereavement counseling.
The American Academy of Grief Counseling, a division of the American Institute of Health Care Professionals, offers certification in bereavement counseling. Students who complete a certificate program can sit for a certification exam given by the academy. The organization also offers its own continuing education courses that can prepare students for the exam.
Individuals with a career studies certificate in grief and bereavement counseling can look for employment in:
- Long-term care facilities
- Funeral service industries
A post-baccalaureate certificate in grief counseling can prepare graduates for certification and enhance their roles and duties in the following occupations:
- Licensed social worker
- School counselor
- Grief counselor
- Funeral home director
- Licensed healthcare professional
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, www.bls.gov), employment for mental health counselors, including grief counselors, could grow at the faster-than-average rate of 25% from 2019-2029. Part of this increase is driven by the growing trend of managed care health insurance companies to cover mental health counseling as an alternative to more expensive forms of care. The median annual salary of mental health counselors, as reported by the BLS in May of 2020, was $42,840.
Certificate and master's degree programs provide students interested in becoming grief counselors with the coursework and hands-on experience needed to help individuals cope with loss. Students learn about different aspects of death and grieving and have the opportunity to work in a number of environments.