Effect of a condolence letter on grief symptoms among relatives of patients who died in the ICU: a randomized clinical trial
Family members of patients who die in the intensive care unit (ICU) may experience symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and/or prolonged grief. We evaluated whether grief symptoms were alleviated if the physician and the nurse in charge at the time of death sent the closest relative a handwritten condolence letter.
Multicenter randomized trial conducted among 242 relatives of patients who died at 22 ICUs in France between December 2014 and October 2015. Relatives were randomly assigned to receiving (n = 123) or not receiving (n = 119) a condolence letter. The primary endpoint was the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Score (HADS) at 1 month. Secondary endpoints included HADS, complicated grief (ICG), and PTSD-related symptoms (IES-R) at 6 months. Observers were blinded to group allocation.
At 1 month, 208 (85.9%) relatives completed the HADS; median score was 16 [IQR, 10–22] with and 14 [8–21.5] without the letter (P = 0.36). Although scores were higher in the intervention group, there were no significant differences regarding the HADS-depression subscale (8 [4–12] vs. 6 [2–12], mean difference 1.1 [−0.5 to 2.6]; P = 0.09) and prevalence of depression symptoms (56.0 vs. 42.4%, RR 0.76 [0.57–1.00]; P = 0.05). At 6 months, 190 (78.5%) relatives were interviewed. The intervention significantly increased the HADS (13 [7–19] vs. 10 [4–17.5], P = 0.04), HADS-depression subscale (6 [2–10] vs. 3 [1–9], P = 0.02), prevalence of depression symptoms (36.6 vs. 24.7%, P = 0.05) and PTSD-related symptoms (52.4 vs. 37.1%, P = 0.03).
In relatives of patients who died in the ICU, a condolence letter failed to alleviate grief symptoms and may have worsened depression and PTSD-related symptoms.
Trial registration Clinicaltrials.gov Identifier: NCT02325297.