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Online Grief Support Specialist class trains global learners in loss and healing

A young woman studying with a laptop computer in a home.

Sometimes, even during a pandemic, things have a way of working out.

Licensed psychologist Bob Wager left a cherished, long-time position supervising case managers in search of a new career opportunity early this spring. Then COVID-19 hit.

But Wagner saw an advertisement for the University of Wisconsin–Madison Grief Support Specialist Certificate. The in-depth class, which will be offered again this October, centers on how to counsel people who have suffered from some form of major loss and gives students in the class the skills to develop a professional specialty in the growing field of grief support.

Bob Wagner
Bob Wagner appreciated learning about creative approaches to helping people experiencing grief.

“I’ve long been interested in grief and loss, so when I saw Grief Support Specialist class come up, it felt like synchronicity,” says Wagner, who lives in Minnesota. “I’ve also experienced loss in my own life and saw an opportunity to learn something from this class, both personally and professionally.”

Though he’s been in the mental health business for 35 years, he was pleasantly surprised by how much he took away from the online program.

“[Instructors] Doug Smith and Molly Tomony had a lot of wisdom to share,” Wagner says. “I’ve been very intellectual and cognitive based in my own work. Molly’s creative approach as an art therapist was impressive — the idea of giving people tasks and helping them be creative in dealing with their grief opened up some ideas for new ways I might work with people.”

Though he’s not sure what his next professional move will be, he believes what he learned in the class will be important to his work counseling others.

“It will be especially helpful in working with different styles of grief and grievers,” he says.

Kindred spirits

Now in its seventh year, the Grief Support Specialist Certificate program offers the only such certificate granted by a major university. Since its inception, the class has trained over 700 students in more than a dozen in-person and online cohorts.

Barbara Nehls-Lowe, grief support program director, UW-Madison
Program director Barbara Nehls-Lowe says the online class connects students from around the world in a shared experience.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the class will be offered online only for the foreseeable future. Program director Barbara Nehls-Lowe says that while the in-person classes have been popular, there are unique advantages to taking the course online.

“Our last eight-week online class was the largest ever — close to 90 participants,” Nehls-Lowe explains. “We had students from around the world, including a psychiatrist from Australia, a health coach from Amsterdam and a cemetery worker from Guam.

“Coming together with kindred spirits to dive more deeply into grief when our world is experiencing exponential levels of loss has indeed been a blessing. The comradery, support and healing that happened in this class — and that happens in all of our Grief Support Specialist classes — is truly profound,” she says.

Supporting families

Utah resident Ryan Thierolf learned about the Grief Support Specialist Certificate class through his company, DonorConnect, a nonprofit organ and tissue donation service. The company’s training and development specialist saw the online class as a way for employees to earn continuing education hours and learn more about how best to support families suffering from the loss of a loved one.

“The Grief Support Specialist class was helpful in providing insight into how people of different ages process loss and explaining the types of grievers,” Thierolf says. “I thought the instructors were knowledgeable and helpful, and I appreciated how they were highly engaged in the lectures and responsive to my inquiries.”

He believes the class provides a good foundation for those who are interested in continuing their study of grief and loss, which he describes as “ever-changing topics.” The class reminded him, too, that counseling those experiencing grief may expose one’s own sensitivities.

“It is alright to show vulnerability when working with others who are broken because we have all suffered loss in various ways,” he notes.

Thierolf believes the lessons learned will help him better communicate with and understand his clients, who are often experiencing acute grief and shock.

“I will be more mindful when working with families to ensure that I am being culturally sensitive to how others process loss and grief,” he says. “I will also be aware that everybody has variance in how they respond to grief and will be able to identify types of grief in others’ reactions.”

The Grief Support Specialist Certificate programming is now enrolling for its October 2020 and January 2021 cohorts. For more information and to register, please visit the program page. For questions, contact Barbara Nehls-Lowe at 608-890-4653 or barbara.nehlslowe@wisc.edu.