Do You Need a Degree to Become a Licensed Grief Counselor?


Wanting to work in the field of death, dying, and bereavement takes a special kind of person who has a willingness and desire to help others struggling with loss. Many jobs dealing with death or grief don’t require a degree or licensure. But to become a licensed professional grief counselor, you will need first to obtain a degree in a related field, in most cases.

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This field has many rewards. And, while it isn’t for everybody, becoming a licensed grief counselor does call for formal education, specific skills, and the ability to deal with loss effectively.

The good news is that there are many different jobs available without investing years in higher education. While these highly specialized fields call for particular skills and the ability to successfully guide bereaved individuals through their grief journeys through training and experience, formal degrees are unnecessary.

Do You Need a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree to Become a Licensed Grief Counselor?

Every state has its own set of rules and regulations governing the licensing requirements of professions dealing with public health and wellness. In most states, but not all, to become a 

licensed grief counselor, individuals must first possess at a minimum a bachelor's degree as the first step to becoming licensed. Some states require candidates to have a master's degree and advanced training and certification in specialty areas of the applicant's choosing before getting approved.  

These educational and training requirements ensure the public's safety in receiving proper care and treatment from persons putting themselves out to be mental health practitioners. Some states have strict guidelines on who's eligible for licensure and require minimums along with additional testing and supervised practice before becoming eligible to apply. Here is a list of commonly exempted groups as provided by the American Counseling Association:

  1. Professionals licensed by other statutes
  2. Supervised students in graduate programs
  3. Members of the clergy 
  4. Employees of government agencies acting in an official capacity 
  5. Attorneys
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Why Do You Need a Degree to Become a Licensed Grief Counselor?

A vital part of needing a degree to get a license to practice as a grief counselor is that obtaining a proper education and training in the field ensures that a candidate has received the essential competencies and credentialing necessary to ensure public safety. Licenses tell the public that a counselor has undergone rigorous education and training, establishing minimal professional standards in their field. 

Licensure and registry give counselors a legal right to practice in their profession while assuring the public of primary standards and ethics meeting government regulations. Licensing boards regulate the profession, define and implement ethics, and regulate the competency of each licensed professional.

Along with licensing boards conferring credentials, they also oversee the continuation and updating of the professional’s education while enforcing merits within the industry. Earning a degree in a related field guarantees each applicant meets the minimum educational requirements.

11 Ways to Work in the Grief or Deathcare Space Without a Degree

If you're looking for ways to become a grief counselor without a degree, there are plenty of options for you to choose from. There are many satisfying and creative ways to work in the field of death, dying, and bereavement without needing a degree, licensing, or credentialing.

Grief counseling is a nationally-recognized counseling specialty that offers options for anyone wanting to live a life of service to bereaved persons and those facing the end of life. The following jobs or positions provide a fulfilling way of working in the deathcare space without a formal education.

1. Bereavement Counselor

Anyone with a specialized diploma in death and dying can become a bereavement counselor by taking online courses. In as little as a year or less, you can train in the basics of becoming a counselor, followed by a more advanced specialized training to become a grief and bereavement counselor. These courses offer a certificate program that you can use to get started in this field, working at various locations in your community that need extra support in this area, or working for yourself.

National organizations such as the Association for Death Education and Counseling offer continued education and national credentialing in thanatology and grief counselor certification.

2. Hospital Chaplaincy

Obtaining a hospital chaplaincy volunteer position is relatively easy nowadays, with so much need for grief and bereavement counseling and not enough chaplains to fill those voids. Your local community hospital may have a designated spiritual care services department within its 

organization where you can learn more about applying and volunteering. In this role, you'll be able to help patients and their families who are struggling with their faith or need spiritual care and support due to loss-related grief. You may first need to become an ordained minister and undergo training before being considered for a volunteer chaplain position.

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3. Prison Chaplaincy

Prison chaplaincy programs are always in need of volunteer clergy to provide pastoral counseling and religious teaching to incarcerated individuals in state and federal prison systems. Volunteers can lead prisoners in prayer, offer bereavement counseling when faced with the death of a loved one at home, and help with transitioning from prison to the outside world. Because prisons are often overcrowded, prison chaplains aren't always able to meet the needs of every inmate.

Pastoral assistants play a vital role in facilitating many of the chaplain's functions and services. Volunteers don't need to have a degree but must undergo special training in prison ministry before being approved. 

4. Pet Loss Grief Support Specialist

The American Institute of Healthcare Professionals offers a Pet Loss Grief Support Certificate to individuals interested in providing bereavement counseling services to individuals experiencing the death of a beloved pet. They provide a six-part coursework program that earns you a certificate in this highly specialized area when completed.

You must be a pastoral counselor in active ministry to bypass their educational prerequisites. Online churches like Universal Life Church offer a free and immediate clergy certification to anyone desiring to enter the ministry. 

5. Thanatologist

Thanatology is a field that deals with the study and research of death and dying. Thanatologists learn to understand better and appreciate what a dying person is going through, making excellent bereavement counselors in nursing facilities and hospice care or providing comfort to families dealing with a recent loss.

You can become a thanatologist in as little as eighteen months through online accredited programs or local universities and community colleges offering coursework in this unique area of deathcare fields. 

6. Clergy/Pastoral Care

Most ordained ministers offer some level of pastoral care to individuals seeking to improve their spiritual, mental, and psychological well-being. Pastoral counselors provide grief counseling combined with spiritual care through specific religious training or specialized theological education. They provide spiritual grief counseling and guidance to dying persons and their families to find peace and forgiveness as they come to terms with their losses.

Although many pastoral counselors hold bachelor's degrees or higher, a degree isn't necessary when approaching this field from a clergy or pastoral care perspective. 

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7. Spiritual Therapist

The spiritual wellness approach combines whole body and mind therapies to help heal the bereaved person’s soul. Spiritual therapists provide spiritually-based interventions to individuals and their families dealing with significant setbacks and losses in their lives. They integrate discussions on religion and spirituality into their healing sessions that are often missing from traditional grief counseling.

Spiritual therapy can also include the integration of physical healing modalities such as yoga and meditation.  

8. Music Thanatologist 

Families of the dying often hire music thanatologists to help usher a dying person into their final moments of life by providing comfort to them through round-the-clock music vigils. Music thanatology uses prescriptive harp music and voice rhythms to bring soothing relief and healing to individuals coping with grief and loss, especially those nearing the end of life.

The music thanatologist uses the rhythms of their voice and the harp to match the individual's breathing to bring them solace. The patient learns to relax and let go by reflecting on the therapist's mimicking of their breathing patterns. 

9. Death Doula

A death doula is much like a death coach offering support, information, and instruction to the dying patient so that they can have a better death experience than otherwise. Death doulas are often called in to sit with the dying patient, offering them comfort and support while talking about anything the patient wants to cover. They also explain the dying process, what to expect, the physiological changes taking shape, and provide physical, emotional, and spiritual support.

To become a death doula, you’ll first need to have a strong desire to work in the field of death and dying, be empathetic, and be knowledgeable about the death process. But, you won’t need any advanced education or formal training. 

10. Grief Coach

Grief coaching is very much like life coaching because it aims to get individuals back on track to living emotionally and spiritually fulfilling lives by setting aside their fears of the unknown. Anytime a person’s stuck in their grief, it makes it challenging to move forward in life. Bereaved individuals may feel guilty for wanting to move on following the death of a loved one or that they are unworthy of living when their loved one is no longer here.

Whatever the reason that a person needs the added support of a grief coach, there are many facets to grief that many people can’t cope with on their own. Together with a grief coach, they can learn to understand their suffering and come up with a plan to leave it behind. 

Alternate Jobs and Careers in Deathcare

Continuing with getting an education in adulthood and working toward a degree isn’t for everyone. Some individuals are not cut out for the academic rigors of University. In contrast, others don’t have the patience or desire to sit through years of boring classroom lectures and homework assignments.

While enhancing your professional identity and credibility are worthy goals to have as you pursue a career in death, dying, and bereavement, many alternate career paths allow you to skip through all the added years of schooling and expenses. Anyone with a strong desire to be of service to others in need can successfully work in this field, carving out a career for themselves with little to no formal education. 

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