Background. Fifty-four per cent of people who die in England and Wales do so in hospital. Evidence suggests that care delivered to dying people in hospital does not match up to the ideal of a good death. These studies have provided organizational and structural explanations of nurses' behaviour that support argument for change at the macro level, in order to improve the quality of care delivered to dying people. There has been little study of the perceptions of nurses working in acute medical settings in relation to their experience of caring for dying people. Therefore, there is little evidence on which to base supportive strategies at the level of individual nurses. Aim. In this study we set out to develop an understanding of care for dying people in hospital, from the perspective of newly qualified staff nurses in the UK. The purpose was to build a theory of how nurses might be helped to deliver quality care to dying people in hospital. Methods. This paper is based on an exploratory study underpinned by phenomenological philosophy. In-depth interviews were conducted with 28 newly qualified nurses, focusing on their experiences of caring for dying people on medical wards in two acute hospitals in England in 1999. The interview transcripts were interpreted using a phenomenological approach. Findings. The findings presented in this paper relate to commonalities found to undetlie study participants' perceptions of their experiences. All the nurses' stories were found to be built around six essences - the personal ideal, the actual, the unknown, the alone, tension and anti-tension. These essences, and the relationships between them, were used to build a model of the experience of caring for dying people in hospital. Limitations. This descriptive study of the experience of individual nurses does not examine the wider social context. It attempts to complement existing sociological theory of death and dying. Conclusion. The study revealed how a group of newly qualified nurses experienced caring for dying people. We theorize that the model developed has utility as a tool for gaining understanding of the experience of caring for dying people. It is assumed that nurses, through using this model to find explanations for their emotions and behaviours, may gain emotional support that might have a positive impact on the quality of care delivered to dying people in hospital.