BACKGROUND: Critically ill patients vary in their memories of their experience in the intensive care unit. Some have little recall and need to learn about their critical illness. Others have more vivid memories of their experiences, some of which were extremely unpleasant. Patients' not knowing what was happening may have exacerbated the unpleasant experiences. OBJECTIVES: To elicit the experience of knowing for critically ill patients and to explore the differences in perceptions between patients who were intubated and those who were not intubated during the illness. METHODS: Grounded theory was used to explore the meaning of knowing and not knowing and the process by which knowing occurs. Unstructured interviews were done with 14 patients. RESULTS: Knowing had 2 phases: the need to know (1) during and (2) after the critical illness. The first phase had 3 facets: needing information, needing to be oriented, and having confusing perceptions. The second phase had 2 facets: needing information about what had happened and piecing together events. Many experiences with knowing during and after a critical illness were similar for both intubated and nonintubated patients. The main difference was the intensity of the experience in some categories. CONCLUSIONS: Critically ill patients have a strong need to know throughout and after their time in the intensive care unit. Nurses must address this need for constant reorientation to the past and present in these patients. In addition, adequate nursing staff must be available for these patients.

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