Shooting tragedies have become an all-too-common occurrences in the United States. What began as a string of isolated school incidents in the 1990s has taken a deadly turn for the worst almost 20 years later, with murders on a massive scale in cold, single-person operations that claim as many as a dozen lives at once. With frightened and traumatized children who have witnessed unspeakable evil, as well as adults seeking answers to difficult, sometimes unexplainable questions, special human services employees known as grief counselors find themselves needed more than ever before.
What They Do
Grief counselors provide therapy for individuals (or groups) which focuses on feelings of intense loss and sadness. Some situations might involve dealing with the death of a spouse, child or parent, coming to terms with a fatal illness or providing psychotherapy for people who have witnessed horrible acts of violence.As opposed to more “typical” therapy, where people learn to work through their problems, change destructive behaviors or come to a new understanding of their thoughts and actions, grief counseling focuses more on the patient having someone there to listen to their fears and other thoughts related to their loss. Grief counselors offer compassion and empathy while validating their parents’ reactions as normal and natural, assisting their patients in reorganizing and reprioritizing their lives, helping them realize their own emotional strengths and encouraging them to grieve and reflect in their own unique, personal ways.
How to Become a Grief Counselor
To become a certified grief counselor, you should complete a bachelor’s degree in a social services or human services program. (If you’re wondering, “What is human services as a discipline?” and how it differs from social work, the answer is scope: social services has a narrower career focus, while human services degree-holders might look into justice or childcare, as well as social services agencies.)
A masters degree in psychology or social work is not necessary, but it’s helpful. Interested students should also complete an internship or pursue volunteer work – anything to give them direct, hands-on experience; the classroom will only prepare you for so much. You can also use that time to ask professionals in the field about their jobs, gleaning real-world, behind-the-scenes information about the high points and the lows.
In order to be employable as a grief counselor you must finally gain certification through the American Institute of Health Care Professionals. Grief counselors should not expect to make six-figure salaries; the national average is about $34,000, though positions often come with benefits like health insurance, sick leave, vacation time and retirement funds. Like nursing and religious vocations, grief counseling could be a considered a calling, a very specific career for people who want to give back and help others, before themselves.
An Essential Service
The need for grief counseling at this very moment is on the rise, not the least of which is in schools of all levels, from elementary to university. With children and young adults arming themselves and killing their classmates, schools and the communities in which they reside have become focal points for active grief counseling, with hotlines set up and counseling available to anyone who needs to talk and have someone listen.
Consider, too, that every time another tragedy occurs, not only are the victims, families and communities involve stricken, but those who in the past who have experienced the same things may find their wounds are still fresh when they open a newspaper or turn on the TV. Those old fears and feelings of sadness may sometimes never go away, and it will be important for them to always have a compassionate ear.
Grief counselors involved in all kinds of mass killings, especially the recent “Dark Knight Rises” opening-night tragedy, will often find themselves in the tricky position of helping grieving families and communities move past what has happened without them ever truly knowing why. They must attempt to bolster up individuals’ emotional strengths and aid the healing process, while also maintaining their own emotional stability
(Sometimes, grief counselors are hit with secondary trauma as a result of repeated exposure to heart-wrenching and tragic firsthand stories.)
While tragedy is entirely not new to the human experience, we are lucky today to have groups of skilled and trained grief counselors to help us in our darkest hours.
About the Author
Mandy Sullivan is a contributing writer in her second year of graduate school. She is pursuing her human services degree and hopes to travel abroad as a counselor.