4 Things to Look for in a Grief Counselor


By Larry M Barber, LPC-S, CT

Not everyone who is dealing with the death of a loved one or significant person in their life needs grief counseling or a grief support group, but either can be helpful.  When the struggle with grief becomes too much for a mourner to handle alone, formalized bereavement support such as grief support groups or professional grief counseling may be necessary for the mourner.  Signs that indicate professional bereavement support is needed can include:

  • An inability to move further in one's grief journey. Mourners can become “stuck” in their grief due to many reasons. Overwhelming complications in grief, an inability or reluctance to express grief emotions, the lack of an adequate grief support system, additional life stressors, or a fixation on details and/or emotions surrounding the death are just some of the factors in grief which can keep a mourner from progressing in a healthy way with their grief and their life.

  • A lack of any observable grief behaviors, emotions or progress in the mourner. People dealing with the death of a loved one are usually either emotive or stoic in their mourning styles. Emotive mourners readily and openly express their grief emotions and thoughts. Stoic mourners on the other hand grieve internally through intellectualizing or becoming involved in activities which facilitate the grieving process. In other words the stoic thinks and works physically through grief. Both styles can produce healthy grief. Occasionally though the mourner cannot or will not start the grief process. This leads to a form of complicated grief Dr. Alan Wolfelt of the Center for Loss and Life Transition (http://centerforloss.com) labels as "absent grief." Absent grief is the total absence of any outward or internal mourning behavior or expression of grief. This complicated grief can be helped by professional grief counseling.

  • An exaggeration of grief behaviors or emotions. This is another form of complicated grief in which the intensity of the person's mourning behavior may stay constant over a period of time and never change. For the mourner with this "distorted grief," as described by Dr. Alan Wolfelt (http://centerforloss.com), there is no sign of emotional healing or progression in the grief process. The mourner with distorted grief stays at the same intensity, often an exaggerated expression of grief, even with the passage of time. For most mourners the intensity of their experience in grief and expression of grief emotions changes with time.

  • An inability to function at home, at school or work due to their grief. In this situation the mourner is partially or totally disabled by their grief. Mourners dealing with this problem are unable to perform in daily, necessary activities due to their overwhelming grief or inability to cope with the loss.

  • The feeling or perception of being overwhelmed, stuck or helpless. Many times mourners may be coping well and in healthy ways, but they feel overwhelmed and without adequate support. For these healthy mourners their perception is their reality, and they can be helped by seeking out support from others in an effort to feel less helpless and hopeless.

What should mourners look for when they are shopping for a grief counselor?  Four suggested qualifications are:

  • A grief counselor knowledgeable about and trained in the grief process.

  • A grief counselor with credentials in the studies and recent research in one or all of these areas-- trauma, death, dying, grief, loss and life transitions. Ask if the therapist is licensed by your state to do professional counseling. Mourners can often be referred to professional grief counselors in their area through such organizations as the American Counseling Association (http://counseling.org), the American Association of Christian Counselors (http://aacc.net) or the Association for Death Education and Counseling (http://adec.org). Other credible referrals can be obtained through ministers or pastors.

  • A grief counselor with experience and a good reputation in your community. (Ideally the counselor will have experience with various types of losses including your specific type of loss and with all ages of mourners.)

  • A grief counselor who charges fees for his or her professional services that are considered reasonable for that community.

Mourners should seek out grief counselors who meet their specific needs and who make them feel safe to express their grief experience and emotions without being judged.

Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise”  available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Christianbook.com.

The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunica Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” on Amazon.com.