Grief Support Specialist Program instructor normalizes grieving process with compassionate conversation

Hand holding

Erica Srinivasan found her calling as a grief support professional while working in an assisted living facility. Many of the facility’s older residents needed to talk about death, loss, and grief, but the conversation would be shut down for a variety of reasons.

“We all die and we all grieve, yet it seems to be a taboo topic,” Srinivasan says. “It was difficult to see people who needed an outlet to explore grief being silenced, and I saw this trend mirrored outside of the facility as well.”

Srinivasan knew she could make a difference by addressing these topics with compassion and helping to normalize the grieving process. She began by earning a PhD in human development and family studies, focusing her studies on end-of-life issues. Then she became an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, where she teaches psychology courses and directs the Center for Death and Grief Education. She’s also a new instructor in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Grief Support Specialist Certificate Program, a professional development opportunity offered through Continuing Studies.

The first of its kind at a major American university, the Grief Support Specialist Certificate Program starts with four daylong classes that teach participants how to help others find meaning in suffering. A month later, students reconvene to present a final paper or project.

The program is designed for social workers, psychologists, health care providers, educators, clergy, and other professionals who help people heal after traumatic events. In addition to earning continuing education units in their professions, participants emerge better equipped to help others cope with losses of loved ones, marriages, jobs, their health, their youth, their self-worth, and more.

Learning from others

Srinivasan has been teaching courses on death and dying for a decade, and she’s published academic work on loss narratives as well as grief that accompanies an assisted death. She also facilitates UW–La Crosse’s International Death, Grief, and Bereavement Conference, which attracts a wide range of professionals who provide and study grief support.

UW-Madison Grief Support Specialist Certificate
Erica Srinivasan: ‘We will always have a need for trained professionals to provide grief support.’

These experiences inform Srinivasan’s teaching, as does volunteer work at hospices and the No One Dies Alone program. She incorporates facilitated discussions and experiential activities into her classes, weaving in research findings and lessons she’s learned through her own losses.

Like the program’s other instructors, Srinivasan encourages students to learn from each other in a supportive environment. This broadens their understanding of grief and loss while fostering professional relationships that can fuel their careers.

“By educating ourselves about loss and grief, we can better support one another and build resources and coping skills,” Srinivasan explains. “It’s rewarding to see students gain compassion for each other, learn from one another’s experiences, and then embark upon their careers, improving end-of-life care and grief support.”

The Grief Support Specialist Certificate Program can also help participants cope with the losses that shape their own lives. Srinivasan’s classes will include free writing activities that challenge students to explore these losses.

Plus, the skills the program enhances—active listening in particular—can benefit learners’ personal and professional relationships.

“It’s important to express grief, whether through talking, writing, or ritual, and whether it is alone or with others. In those explorations, meaning can be found,” Srinivasan says. “That’s one reason it’s important for a person providing grief support to understand the power of listening.”

Students in the Grief Support Certificate Program also learn about a variety of approaches to coping with grief, including theories and therapeutic interventions. Then they complete a final project that explores innovative approaches to grief support, which Srinivasan says “has the ability to lead to a job or to the creation of a new service.”

‘A growing and needed field’

Srinivasan appreciates how the Grief Support Specialist Certificate Program benefits professionals with different specialties and experience levels, as well as people considering entering the field of grief support.

“For professionals already working in the field, the certificate will enhance their work and offer new perspectives and resources,” she says, “and those seeking a career in grief support will gain the background, skills, and inspiration they need to succeed.”

Srinivasan is also excited about the career possibilities available to students. She characterizes grief support as a stable occupation because death and loss are an inevitable part of life.

“As long as humans are experiencing loss, we will always have a need for trained professionals to provide grief support,” she says.

Srinivasan notes that workplace bereavement policies often don’t give employees adequate time to grieve the loss of loved ones or consider the variety of cultural practices surrounding grief and loss. Certain types of loss bring about additional challenges as well. In other words, there is a great need for skilled grief support specialists.

“For example, people grieving an assisted death have grief unique to this mode of death and limited outlets for formal support, and those grieving a suicide report feeling stigma,” Srinivasan explains. “And people coping with dementia, as well as their loved ones, navigate multiple and ongoing losses.”

What’s more, grief support and related fields are growing, leading to new career opportunities for students in the program.

“People entering the field now are in a position to create new jobs and outlets of support for people grieving a loss,” Srinivasan explains. “Grief support is most certainly a growing and needed field.”

For more information about the Grief Support Specialist Certificate Program, contact Barbara Nehls-Lowe at barbara.nehlslowe@wisc.edu. The certificate’s next in-person session begins Oct. 4, 2018, and the next online session begins June 21, 2019.