Abstract The aim of the study was to generate a theoretical model of how relatives/close friends cope when faced with having an adult next-of-kin/close friend admitted to critical care. Using interviews, data were collected from 18 relatives/close friends of adult patients in thoracic surgical, neurosurgical, coronary, and general ICUs in south-west Sweden. The design incorporated grounded theory methodology. The results indicate the relatives/close friends tried to make the experience of their situation easier, but that the approaches used differed in accordance with the individual’s internal and external resources. Four coping strategies exhibiting different characteristics were identified: the relatives/close friends alleviated, recycled, mastered, or excluded their feelings. Factors determining the choice of coping strategy were social background, previous experience of ICU-care and how the situation was apprehended. The theoretical model described in this article can contribute to expanding nurses’ understanding of the coping strategies of relatives/close friends in critical care.