BACKGROUND: The needs and satisfaction levels of family members of critically ill patients have received much attention in the literature. The feelings of family members, however, have not been thoroughly investigated. To develop appropriate nursing interventions to assist family members in coping with a critical care hospitalization, accurate information about their emotional response to the situation is needed. OBJECTIVE: To examine emotional responses of family members and their descriptions of supportive behaviors of others during a critical care hospitalization. METHODS: An exploratory design was used to study 52 subjects with critically ill family members in the pediatric, neonatal, medical, surgical and cardiovascular intensive care units in a large tertiary care hospital. The subjects kept daily logs of their feelings and the supportive behaviors of others. Thematic analysis was used to identify major themes. RESULTS: Analysis revealed a broad range of powerful emotions throughout the intensive care unit stay. Negative and positive emotions such as despair and joy were sometimes identified by subjects within a 24-hour period. Although fear, worry, anger and exhaustion were dominant themes during the first 24 hours and when the family received bad news about the patient, there was no pattern of emotional response evident as the stay progressed. Some differences between subjects drawn from the medical and neonatal intensive care units were evident. CONCLUSIONS: The findings suggest that family members of critically ill patients experience deep emotional turmoil throughout the intensive care unit stay. Specific nursing interventions to promote adaptive coping are needed throughout the experience.

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