Treating Prolonged Grief Disorder: A 2-Year Follow-Up of a Randomized Controlled Trial

Background: Prolonged grief disorder (PGD) causes significant impairment in approximately 7% of bereaved people. Although cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to effectively treat PGD, there is no evidence of long-term effects of CBT.

Objective: To determine the long-term efficacies of CBT with exposure or CBT without exposure in treating PGD by assessing outcome at 2 years.

Methods: A randomized controlled trial of PGD patients (N = 80) attending an outpatient clinic took place between September 2007 and June 2010, and a 2-year follow-up occurred between December 2009 and October 2012. All patients received 10 weekly 2-hour group therapy sessions that comprised CBT techniques. Patients also received 4 individual sessions in which they were randomly allocated to receive exposure therapy (CBT/Exposure) for memories of the death or supportive counseling (CBT). Prolonged grief disorder was assessed by clinical interview using the Complicated Grief Assessment. Severity of PGD, the primary outcome, was assessed using the Inventory of Complicated Grief.

Results: Intent-to-treat analyses indicated a significant linear time × treatment condition interaction effect at 2 years (B = 0.63; SE = 0.26; t225 = 2.44; P = .02; 95% CI, 1.14 to 0.12), indicating that CBT/Exposure led to greater reductions in PGD than CBT. Further, the linear between-group effect size at the 2-year follow-up was 1.15.

Conclusions: Exposure therapy in the course of CBT leads to greater reduction in symptoms of PGD than CBT without exposure, and this additive gain extends 2 years after treatment is complete. To achieve optimal treatment gains in patients with PGD, therapists should encourage some form of exposure therapy to memories of the death.

Trial Registration: Australian New Zealand Clinical Trials Registry identifier: ACTRN12609000229279

J Clin Psychiatry 2017;78(9):1363–1368