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Looking After Yourself


The rest of your life does not stop when your family member is admitted to the ICU. You may still have work commitments, a mortgage to pay, a house to maintain, or other family and pets to care for. It is important that you continue to sleep, eat and exercise.

Dr. Heyland explains why it’s important to look after yourself, and how to use this section of the website to get the support you need.


*Click CC in the play bar or C on your keyboard for subtitles/closed captions

Sleep: Family and friends of a patient in the ICU can become exhausted. Sleep is important so that you can think clearly. The most restful sleep is often in your own bed or familiar environment. There may be a bed available in the hospital for families to use while your family member is critically ill in the ICU. Even if you have difficulty sleeping soundly, just lying down will provide you with rest. Remember the healthcare team are attentively caring for your family member even at night, so it is okay to leave to get some much needed rest. The health care team will monitor and care for your family member while you rest, and will keep you informed of any changes in your family member’s condition.

Physical activity: Other families have reported that exercise helps them cope with the stress of having a family member the ICU. A short walk outside the hospital in the fresh air can help you re-charge and regain focus.

Nutrition: It is important to take time for meals. Even if you do not feel hungry at meal times, try to have something small and nutritious, like a piece of cheese with toast or soup. The hospital is a very dry environment so remember to drink water.

Seek support: Having a family member in the ICU can be a scary experience, full of uncertainty and anxiety. Families and friends should give each other time and a safe space for expressing emotions. The ICU team can let you know if there is a private quiet room available, if you need privacy. Remember you are not in this alone; there are many people who want to help. Whether it’s a close friend or family member, social worker, spiritual care advisor, doctor, nurse, or volunteer, there are people you can talk to. Ask a member of the health care team if you would like to speak to one of these people. You may find it helpful to pray, cry, or reflect on the life of your family member together.

When your loved one is unwell, you may experience many emotions, and may even begin to ponder life’s ‘big questions’ or explore your own sense of spirituality. If you have a spiritual and/or religious practice or community of support, it can be helpful to continue these practices or rituals and reach out to people who can support you. Most hospitals also have a multi-faith spiritual care professional who is available to support you in your spiritual and/or religious concerns.

Informing family and friends: Keeping your friends and family informed about your family member’s medical condition can be very stressful. It is emotionally draining and exhausting to repeat the details of the latest treatment progress and test results every day. It may help to take notes which you can share with others. Consider asking a family member to send group updates via emails, websites (such as or a blog, or keep a diary or notebook at the bedside updated every day.

Managing the helpers: Your friends and family may wish to help you, yet often do not know how best to do so. While this network of support can be useful, the number of phone calls and visits can also be overwhelming. Many people will ask you “what can I do?” It can be quite helpful to share with them practical ideas on how they can help (for ideas, see: Some people have had friends and family members assist with the routine activities that still need to get done while you are at the hospital, for example: feeding the cats, walking the dog, cutting the grass or shoveling the driveway. It may be comforting to know that these things are taken care of in your absence.