Background No validated conceptual framework exists for understanding the outcomes of patient- and family-centered care in critical care. Objective To explore the meaning of intensive care unit among patients and their families by using freelisting. Methods The phrase intensive care unit was used to prompt freelisting among intensive care unit patients and patients’ family members. Freelisting is an anthropological technique in which individuals define a domain by listing all words that come to mind in response to a topic. Salience scores, derived from the frequency with which a word was mentioned, the order in which it was mentioned, and the length of each list, were calculated and analyzed. Results Among the 45 participants, many words were salient to both patients and patients’ family members. Words salient solely for patients included consciousness, getting better, noisy , and personal care . Words salient solely for family members included sadness, busy, professional , and hope . The words suffering, busy , and team were salient solely for family members of patients who lived, whereas sadness, professionals , and hope were salient solely for family members of patients who died. The words caring and death were salient for both groups. Conclusions Intensive care unit patients and their families define intensive care unit by using words to describe sickness, caring, medical staff, emotional states, and physical qualities of the unit. The results validate the importance of these topics among patients and their families in the intensive care unit and illustrate the usefulness of freelisting in critical care research.