How to Find a Grief Counselor

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Grief counselors can come from lots of different backgrounds: They may be physicians, funeral directors, psychotherapists, social workers, or ministers, for instance, who have also completed extensive training and supervised practice in bereavement counseling. The American Academy of Grief Counseling and the Association for Death Education and Counseling each offer different levels of credentialing.

The role of a grief counselor involves three main forms of support:

  • They provide comfort, which you may or may not be getting at home or through other avenues
  • They provide coping tools, based on other people’s proven experiences but tailored to your personal needs and situation
  • They help you adjust to your loss and find ways to keep your life going

Some people might mistakenly assume that a grief counselor is mostly focused on helping people “bounce back” from a loss, but real resolution and healing actually happens when you can carry the memory of your loved one without anguish, says Jill Cohen, a New York-based grief counselor. (Related: What’s the Difference Between Grief and Depression?)

“We try to find ways to incorporate him or her into your ongoing life, so the person isn’t really gone forever,” she says.  That may mean anything from running a 5K race to raise research funds for the cancer that claimed your mom’s life to starting a new tradition of eating your granddad’s favorite foods on his birthday.

For some, being able to memorialize your loved one may mean first working on being able to accept the death and resuming normal daily routines. Just as no two people’s grief is exactly alike, what they need from a counselor isn’t identical, Cohen says. (Related: 6 Grieving Rituals That Can Help You Heal.)

How to know if you need a grief counselor

Being deeply sad and upset following a loved one’s death is completely normal, says Cohen. “It’s a really huge life event, and there is no one right way to respond.” Many people get through this period by talking to their friends, family, and/or religious leader, and by giving themselves time and space to process their pain.

For others, a grief counselor can be a helpful—or even vital—step. Here are some signs that a pro may be helpful in handling your grief:

  • You don’t have a robust support network or you don’t feel comfortable talking about your complicated emotions surrounding the death with those closest to you
  • You feel overwhelmed by the intensity of your emotions
  • You’re struggling to maintain your day-to-day activities or dread getting through the day
  • You isolate yourself from friends and family and have started avoiding people whom you’d otherwise welcome seeing
  • You regularly miss work or school, even weeks after the death
  • You find yourself drinking more than usual or using other substances to numb or distract yourself from your emotions
  • You worry that you’ll always feel as upset as you are right now

How to find a grief counselor

By the time you decide that you need help, you don’t want your search for a counselor to be long and hard. Luckily, there are several avenues to explore when looking for a grief counselor:

  • Hospice or hospital. If your loved one died while in hospice or at a hospital, there are typically coordinators on staff who can suggest local resources for finding a therapist. You don’t have to ask for assistance immediately following the death; they can point you in the right direction even months later.
  • Place of worship. Many religious leaders have received training on how to help their congregants manage grief. But if not, they should be able to connect you to professional resources.
  • Online directories. Psychology Today maintains a database of grief counselors, which is searchable by zip code.
  • Insurance company. Grief counseling (also known as bereavement counseling) may be covered by your health insurance. If so, your insurer can provide a list of qualified counselors in your area.
  • Personal recommendations. Reach out to close friends and family who have lost a loved one in the past, and ask if any had a positive experience with a particular grief counselor.

No matter where you turn, don’t be hesitant to ask for help. There’s nothing shameful about needing some extra support during a difficult time, whether it’s been two weeks or two years since your loss.

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