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Grief, Bereavement, and Coping With Loss (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Treatment

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Throughout the middle phase, attention alternated between the themes of loss/grief and future/restoration. A unique characteristic of CGT was the concept of revisiting loss via retelling the story of the death. This concept was particularly important for persons inclined to avoid thinking about the trauma of the loss. Specific procedures that were modeled after the "imaginal exposure" component of interventions for post-traumatic stress disorder were utilized for retelling.[9]

The termination phase for the CGT group was similar to that for the IPT group.[9]

Both treatments showed improvements in symptoms, with the CGT group showing a larger percentage of patients responding (51%) than the IPT group (28%). The CGT group also seemed to respond quicker than the IPT group. A total of 45% of all study participants were taking antidepressants. No significant differences in outcomes were found for those on antidepressant medications.[9]

The second study of complicated grief [11][Level of evidence: II] compared cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), offered in two different sequences, with supportive counseling for 54 bereaved persons, all prescreened and found to be experiencing complicated grief.

With researchers hypothesizing that maladaptive thoughts and behaviors are an important component of complicated grief, the CBT interventions consisted of two components (exposure therapy and cognitive restructuring) designed to directly impact grief-related thoughts and behaviors.[11] Participants were randomly assigned to receive one of three treatments:

  • Exposure therapy followed by cognitive restructuring.
  • Cognitive restructuring followed by exposure therapy.
  • Supportive counseling.

Results showed that both CBT groups experienced more improvement in symptoms of complicated grief and general psychopathology than did the supportive counseling group. In component analyses, the exposure therapy component was more effective than the cognitive restructuring component; the sequence of exposure therapy first, followed by cognitive restructuring, produced the best results.[11]

Pharmacologic Treatment of Bereavement-related Depression

The clinical decision on whether to provide pharmacologic treatment for depressive symptoms in the context of bereavement is controversial and not very extensively studied. Some health care professionals argue that distinguishing the sadness and distress of normal grief from the sadness and distress of depression is difficult, and pharmacologic treatment of a normal emotional process is not warranted. However, three open-label trials and one randomized controlled trial of treatment of bereavement-related depression with antidepressants have been reported (see Table 1).

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