Is Everyone a “Loved One”?

Published on: Author: John MacArtney Leave a comment
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

How many times have you used or seen the term “loved one” this week? If you work in healthcare or the service sector, there’s a good chance it is quite a few. Have you ever stopped to think what is meant by it, its limitations or if you use it how it might be received?

At first glance the phrase would seem to be an unproblematic and well-meaning shorthand used to describe the relationship between a person and those who care for and are closest to them. But we are not so sure.

Of course, if the individuals involved are genuinely close and in loving or caring relationships – or you know everyone involved – then it might be an entirely appropriate term. But what about when it is an assumption, or you don’t really know the relationship of those involved, or when you use the term “loved ones” as a general catch-all for family, friends, or other close persons? Are you sure “love” is the thing that ties them all together?

We pose these questions as social scientists who research healthcare, the end of life and its aftermath. As you might expect, the social, anthropological, political, historical, cultural and ethical literatures suggest that (close) human relationships are often a little more complicated than “loved ones” can capture, and this is not simply a grammatical or categorical point of accuracy.

The terms used to describe our relationships can reflect how we see the world and can suggest how we think the world should be, and people should behave. We have observed how the casual way “loved ones” is used when it is not appropriate and the emotional and interpersonal issues it can create, as well as the ‘performance’ that can ensue as people try to live up to that moniker.

Eulogies at funerals provide a clear example of this. Assuming all those present are “loved ones” of the deceased can shut down authentic feeling and communication: what happens if someone has a very difficult relationship with their late mother? Or they are relieved that their elderly uncle has died? It can imply that if their relationship was not loving, that it was somehow wrong or inferior.

Research has also shown that people care for those who are ill for lots of reasons, such as moral or civic obligation, duty, personal (emotional or material) benefit or because of fear. For those who have cared for someone who is dying it has been observed that people can even feel a sense of relief, or completion after someone has died.

Automatically deferring to “loved one” would be to subsume or delegitimise those experiences within a moral imperative that a relationship, an action (such as organising a funeral), or care is done because of a loving relationship. It can also pose those people as “problematic” when they actively resist referring to the dying or deceased person as a “loved one” because, quite simply, they weren’t.

Moreover, in a climate where decolonising knowledge and inclusivity are ever more important, talking about “loved ones” foregrounds highly individualised western and gendered notions of “love” as a basis of care and relationships. For those families and communities where the individual is not prominent or care takes place for collective social reasons, assuming everyone is a “loved one” could negate the diversity of reasons people care for others found across cultures.

Our reflections here are not intended to be definitive and we have no desire to be the “language police”! But we suggest a process of reflection on the potential interpretations of “loved ones,” the loaded expectations the term can create, and the connotations that accompany it.

We appreciate that no collective label is ideal or works all the time – we have had to take a moment to think about the terms we are using in this short piece every time we wanted to refer to the individual and those supporting them. But that, in essence, is the argument we are making: before referring to someone as a “loved one,” pause and think about who and what you are describing.

And, if in doubt, ask those involved how they would like their identity or relationship referred to. Otherwise, seek to be specific: if you mean “family and close persons” say that, or “people important to X”, or “informal carers”, or “spouse or partner”, and so on. Try not to assume that biological or social closeness automatically equates to a “loved one”.


This blog entry was written by:

John I MacArtney, Marie Curie Associate Professor, Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick,, ORCID ID: 0000-0002-0879-4277

Kate Woodthorpe, Centre for Death and Society, Department of Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath,, ORCID ID: 0000-0002-0642-2832

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