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What Makes a Good Bereavement Counselor?

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

  • In researching the qualities of a good grief counselor, I asked a number of bereaved people who have been to a grief counselor to respond to the question, “In your experience, what makes a good grief counselor? More specifically, if you were to speak to a group of grief counselors, what would you say to them?”Here is what they said:

  • Help me understand that I’m not going crazy.

  • Help me understand that I don’t have to “get well” or “get healthy” as if I’m mentally ill.

  • Help me understand what I’m going through—what is grief? What are common grief reactions?

  • Have humility—you may be a good marriage counselor, you may work great with children, you may know what makes adolescents tick, you may have great insights into alcohol and drug abuse, but that doesn’t mean anything when it comes to understanding what a parent experiences weeks, months, years after the death of their child—admit you don’t know.

  • Realize and admit that you do not have the answers and that there is nothing magical you can say that will make me feel better.

  • Don’t ask me to “find meaning” to “make sense of this tragedy” to “look for the silver lining”—it ain’t there.

  • Admit to yourself (and to me, if need be) that you have much to learn from me & then listen and learn.

  • Do not give pat answers such as, “The average grieving process in your case is 3 to 4 years.”

  • Realize that formulas don’t work with us.

  • Understand that each parent, child, or sibling you see is different and therefore so is our grief.

  • Get rid of any idea that I’m going through “stages” “phases” “steps” “tasks” and so on.

  • Help me understand that my grief will continue to recycle.

  • I want someone who is a darned good listener.

  • Remind me at various times that there is HOPE and that although death is forever, my feelings about it will change.

  • Remind me of my mental fragility: to be careful driving, watch for work-aholism, grief attacks, and how other losses can bring it all back.

  • Point out how I need to be aware of the upcoming entire month or more of my child’s death.

  • Help me acknowledge any anger that I may have and to understand that it is OK to be angry but what I do with it is critical; and that people may be afraid of my anger—but you won’t be.

  • As horrendous as my story may be don’t make the mistake my first counselor made by looking horrified and gasping, “Oh no!”

  • It is your professional responsibility to understand if you are not qualified and then find a qualified person for referral.

  • I want someone who could put into words some of my anguish, bewilderment and inability to cope.

  • Help me learn to love myself because I am a totally different person and I have to learn to love this new person.

  • Help me to work on the fact that I’ve lost part of who I am and part of my counseling is finding who I was and who I am now.”

  • You need a tender heart.

Here are some DON’Ts for professionals from bereaved people who responded to the question, “In an attempt to help a person in grief, what are things that professionals should never do?”

  • Don’t ever say what the counselor of a bereaved mother said “You need to find a new love.”

  • Don’t ever say, “It’s time for you to tell your son good-bye.” I will never say that.

  • Don’t use words like, “brave,” and “strong.”

  • Don’t try to “fix” me. The best things you can do is just be there, listen, give me a hug and accept me as I am. You cannot push me through grief.

  • Don’t tell me that my loved one who died would want me to be happy. That might be true. But what she would really want is to be with me and her family and for us to be happy again. I have enough guilt without feeling guilty for not feeling happy.

  • Don’t say, “I understand.” You don’t, even if you’ve experienced a similar loss.

So, there they are—a whole host of things to look for in a counselor. Of course no counselor is perfect and there will be times when the counselor will point out something that is not pleasant to hear, but is something that needs to be said. I don’t have to tell you—grief is hard; and it is a gift when you find a counselor who can sit with your pain and walk with you in negotiating the most difficult journey of your life.

Now, go out there and find a good one.

You deserve it.


Dr. Bob

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