Assisting the bereaved: A systematic review of the evidence for grief counselling

Waller, A. et al. Palliat Med February 2016 vol. 30 no. 2 132-148

Background: Supporting people after bereavement is a priority area for many health services. Investment in bereavement care must be supported by a rigorous evidence-base.

Aim: To examine the (1) relative proportion of descriptive, measurement and intervention research in grief counselling and (2) quality and effectiveness of intervention studies.

Design: Systematic review of studies published in the area of grief counselling.

Data sources: MEDLINE, Embase, Cochrane Library and PsycINFO databases were searched for studies published between 2000 and 2013. Eligible papers were categorised into descriptive, measurement, review, commentaries and intervention studies. Intervention studies were assessed against the Cochrane Effective Practice and Organisation of Care methodological criteria, and papers meeting criteria were assessed for quality. The impact of interventions on grief, psychological morbidity and quality of life was examined.

Results: A total of 126 data-based papers, including 47 descriptive, 3 measurement and 76 grief counselling intervention studies were included. Only 59% (n = 45) of intervention studies met Effective Practice and Organisation of Care design criteria. Overall, study quality was poor, with the majority of interventions showing a risk of bias in several key areas. The three studies that met all criteria showed mixed effectiveness.

Conclusion: Grief counselling interventions require a strong rationale for design, and a systematic approach to development and evaluation. Descriptive research efforts should inform this process, focusing on homogeneity in sample, identification of risk factors for complicated grief and the impact of extraneous factors on intervention effects. Interventions should include comparisons to usual care, as well as replication to confirm positive findings.

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