The incidence of violence directed towards nurses is well known. However, despite guidelines and training aimed at preventing or minimizing these incidents, recent reports indicate an increase in their occurrence. This phenomenological study investigated the experiences of five registered nurses who had to manage a violent incident involving an elderly patient. The purpose of this was to discover what these nurses ‘know’ about the structure of such an experience and, through the use of Colaizzi’s method of data analysis, present this knowledge in the form of an exhaustive description of the experience. Taped interviews were used to collect the data. The analytical process revealed that the experience is structured around five themes: professional competence, nursing identity, powerlessness and oppression, loss (neglected and deserted) and strategies for survival. The discussion analyses these themes and the relationships between them, highlighting the issues of nurse autonomy and exercising accountability. The implications for nursing practice, education and research include recognition of nurses as a professional group to enable autonomous practice, the ways in which nurses’ perceptions of nursing knowledge may affect their educative role and the need to extend this study further to provide answers to the questions raised therein.