Aims and objectives: To explore the experiences of family members of patients treated with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. Background: Sudden onset of an unexpected and severe illness is associated with an increased stress experience of family members. Only one study to date has explored the experience of family members of patients who are at high risk of dying and treated with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. Design: A qualitative descriptive research design was used. Methods: A total of 10 family members of patients treated with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation were recruited through a convenient sampling approach. Data were collected using open‐ended semi‐structured interviews. A six‐step process was applied to analyse the data thematically. Four criteria were employed to evaluate methodological rigour. Results: Family members of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation patients experienced psychological distress and strain during and after admission. Five main themes (Going Downhill, Intensive Care Unit Stress and Stressors, Carousel of Roles, Today and Advice) were identified. These themes were explored from the four roles of the Carousel of Roles theme (decision‐maker, carer, manager and recorder) that participants experienced. Conclusion: Nurses and other staff involved in the care of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation patients must pay attention to individual needs of the family and activate all available support systems to help them cope with stress and strain. Relevance to clinical practice: An information and recommendation guide for families and staff caring for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation patients was developed and needs to be applied cautiously to the individual clinical setting.