Intensive care: experiences of family & friends

Relationships within and between families

Having a relative, partner or close friend critically ill in ICU is a crisis situation that can affect the whole family. It can be an extremely emotional time and, for some, 'a roller coaster' of highs and lows when the patient continually improves and deteriorates again. Living in the extreme uncertainty of not knowing whether the patient will survive or what the future holds, affects people in many different ways as well as their relationships with others. Here people talk about the impact on their relationships with partners, relatives and friends when someone close to them was critically ill. Experiences ranged from those who felt they'd grown closer to people or individuals, to those who felt relationships had become more strained, tense or difficult. 

When the patient was first admitted to intensive care, roles and responsibilities within the family often had to be changed to enable relatives and close friends to visit ICU every day. Some said the intensive care situation had brought them closer as a family, often because they'd had to support one another through a difficult, distressing time. 

Since the patient's critical illness, many found that they had more contact relatives, especially by phone. They'd grown closer to each other when visiting the ill person and still kept in touch once the patient had started recovering, even if they hadn't always been able to meet up. 

One woman said that, since her brother was critically ill, she'd kept more in touch with her nephews and nieces by text and now feels closer to them. Another said that her parents-in-law had helped and supported her a lot while her husband had been critically ill. Once he started improving, this had meant that she'd been able to return to work part-time and have a break from ICU for a few hours. One person said he was now much closer to his partner and her family, and another that she'd grown closer to her daughter, having spent so much time with her when she'd been in hospital. Some said they'd become closer to their partners and two couples had got engaged when the ill person had started improving. The illness had made both couples realise just how important their relationship had been.

Some explained that people had reacted in different ways to news of the patient's illness, with some becoming closer and others more distant. Several said the critical illness had shown them who their 'real' friends were because they'd visited or given support at the time they'd needed it (see 'Sources of support in ICU'). 

Some people said that, under the extreme stress of the patient's illness, there'd been times of tension between families. Some felt that, when their partners had become ill, there'd been tension between them and their partner's family. A few felt that their partner's family hadn't always understood their point of view and it had often been difficult to spend any time alone with the ill person in ICU. Some of these people also felt that they themselves had had very little support because their main source of support had usually been the ill person. 

Although some people had valued having other relatives staying with them at this time, others had found it difficult. 

One woman said it had been extremely difficult for her when her partner had become critically ill because his parents hadn't been aware of their ten-year long relationship. She not only had to deal with the stress of his illness but had also had to negotiate visiting times so she wouldn't bump into them. With the help of ICU staff, she'd been able to visit him when they'd gone home. After he came round, he told his parents about their relationship and they are now engaged. Many people praised ICU staff who'd helped ease tension between families and individuals. 

Some people had been so shocked and distressed by the person's illness that they'd withdrawn and hadn't wanted to talk to other people, including other relatives. Some said they'd pushed other people away because they wanted to deal with what had been going on by themselves (see 'Emotional effects on relatives and friends in ICU').

A few people said they'd felt disappointed in the lack of support from relatives. 

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One woman, who hadn't been close to her sister-in-law, said she'd learnt much more about her when she became critically ill. She'd become her sister-in-law's next-of-kin because her husband had been abroad and had dealt with many practical matters. Sadly, her sister-in-law died after three weeks in ICU. 

Last reviewed May 2015.

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