People are admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) when they are so seriously ill that they need intense support while they are treated, constant monitoring and 24-hour nursing care that cannot be performed on general wards. The length of time patients stay in ICU depends on the extent of their illness or injuries - some recover quickly and others need to stay in ICU for weeks. ICU patients receive the best care and every treatment the medical team believes will help them to recover. On the occasions when recovery isn't possible, the medical team discusses with the patient's family whether certain treatments such as ventilation (life support machines) or kidney dialysis machines should be discontinued. If appropriate, doctors may also talk to family members about organ donation [see The Intensive Care Society].
Sadly, not every patient survives critical illness, and death or the possibility of death is an ever present reality in ICU. Here people talk about their experiences when a relative, partner or close friend died in intensive care.
Some people said they'd found it extremely distressing just knowing that patients in ICU had died while they'd been visiting their own relative or close friend. Hearing other visitors crying or meeting them in the relatives' room had been extremely difficult and a stark, upsetting or frightening reminder of just how vulnerable their own relative was. For those whose relatives had died in ICU, this was an extremely traumatic time. One woman described how her husband had died of liver disease. Another explained how her son, who suffered from severe depression, had taken an overdose and died ten days later in ICU. One woman's sister-in-law had had an accident and had died three weeks after being admitted to ICU. One man, who happened to be an ICU consultant, said his 83-year-old father had spent five weeks in intensive care and died after having complications during surgery for cancer of the kidney.
People recalled how they'd been told that the patient was dying or about to die by doctors and nurses. Most said information and news had been given sensitively and compassionately, though one woman felt confused by the medical terms doctors had used and extremely upset when she realised her son would be dying later that evening rather than in a few weeks time, as she'd believed. Her son had died shortly after being transferred from ICU to a ward. In some cases, relatives were aware that death was imminent and inevitable because they'd learned to observe improvements and deteriorations in the function of different organs by watching the monitors the patient was attached to.
Everyone is different and some people had wanted to be with the patient when he or she was about to die while others hadn't and had seen the patient afterwards, when the life support equipment had all been taken away.
Most people praised the support they'd received, especially from nurses, and the privacy they'd been given at this immensely traumatic, upsetting time. ICU staff do as much as possible to help families through this time, making sure that relatives are given as much privacy as possible and information. This includes giving them information about registering the death and contacting the funeral director, all of which need to be done by a relative or close friend in the first five days after someone has died. Relatives are also told about the support that is available in the days ahead.
Some people explained how they'd collected the patient's belongings, often with the help of nurses, because they didn't want to go back to ICU the following day. One woman, however, described her feelings when she returned the following day to collect her son's things.
Some people said there'd been a coroner's inquest after the patient's death. This is an enquiry into the causes of death and its aims are to determine how, when and where the person died. One woman, whose son had had bipolar depression for many years, said he'd taken an overdose and she and her husband had been allowed to see him after the inquest. Both of them had found this extremely helpful while they'd been grieving the loss of their 21-year-old son.
Many people also talked about organising a funeral for the relative who had died (see 'Funerals').
Last reviewed February 2013.
Last updated November 2010.