How to Become a Hospice Counselor

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A hospice organization offers medical, emotional, and spiritual support to patients with life-threatening conditions and their loved ones as they face end-of-life issues. The hospice counselor is part of that team of providers whose goal is to guide the terminally-ill patient through his final moments of life with dignity and comfort. Counselors in a hospice environment can be career professionals or volunteers.

Understand the role of being a good listener. The hospice patient and his loved ones may want to discuss a fear of dying, guilt or denial related to the patient’s health condition, or unresolved conflicts within the family circle. After the patient dies, the counselor will continue to stand by the survivors by letting them talk, directing them toward community services, and assuring them that their emotions are normal.

Use a related background as a stepping stone. Hospice counselors may be social workers or chaplains who specialize in bereavement. Those fields require bachelor’s degrees to obtain entry level positions and master’s degrees for advancement.

Pursue certification. The Association for Death Education and Counseling administers the nationallyrecognized certification in thanatology, which is the study of death, dying, and bereavement. Candidates must hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree and complete 60 hours of study before they can register for the exam. Letters of reference also are required.

Invest time in the preparation for the certification exam. Study guides are distributed upon registration for the three-hour online test.

Volunteer at a hospice as another pathway toward a role as a hospice counselor. Non-paid staff members gain exposure to a hospice community by performing office work, greeting visitors, or doing grocery shopping or light housework for patients. As a volunteer grows accustomed to the grieving process, she may find herself becoming more deeply involved with patients and families as they navigate through their journey. Each hospice organization offers training and referrals to community resources to build counseling skills. Trade associations, such as the American Hospice Association, also can steer volunteers toward educational opportunities.


Death and dying are not easy subjects to digest. The stress level is high among hospice team members. In a typical day, a hospice counselor will see up close the gut-wrenching ravages of disease. Most hospice patients are elderly, but children and teen-agers also are afflicted will incurable ailments. Hospice employees and volunteers must accept that their patients eventually will die. A hospice counselor needs the right blend of compassion, inner sturdiness, and training to be effective in this role.