Surrounded by loving family . . . really?
May 28, 2015 4:33 AM   Subscribe

Another morbid funeral question: Is it "understood" that when an obituary says someone died "surrounded by his/her loving family" that the mourners may or may not have been present around the deathbed?

I recently attended two funerals of beloved aged people who were the head of large families. In each case, the obituary said the deceased died "surrounded by her loving family." I wondered about this since many of the offspring lived in far-flung locations. Did they all make it in time for the parent's death? It turned out only one adult child happened to be present at the moment of death in each case.

My husband claims that "surrounded by loving family" is a euphemism that means the loving family was there "in spirit" if not in fact. He says it's like everyone pretending Christmases are merry for everyone or everyone's thankful at Thanksgiving, i.e. it's a public face not a fact. I think it has implications, which my husband scoffed at a bit, causing mourners who could not be present to feel guilty. So, is the "surrounded by loving family" phrase just a custom not meant to be taken literally?
posted by Elsie to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would understand it to mean that at least some, but not necessarily all of the family were present in the days preceding death. If say three or more people were there, I think it's fine. If just one, then no, it's weird. You can't be surrounded by one person.
posted by lollusc at 4:41 AM on May 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

I've never given this any thought until now, but whenever I read that phrase I do get a mental picture of loved ones literally surrounding the person on their deathbed. But I think it's something of a stock phrase the might have a range of actual meanings -- from the very literal, as in family members were there at the bedside, to the more general sense that family was involved and present in the person's final days.
posted by swheatie at 4:43 AM on May 28, 2015 [11 favorites]

I'm with your husband-- I read it more as a figure of speech which says the deceased was much loved. I take it more indeed as surrounded in spirit.
posted by frumiousb at 4:44 AM on May 28, 2015 [12 favorites]

Possibly not exactly the same thing, but when we went to legally register (in the UK) my dad's death last year, the registrar asked if anyone had been with him when he died.

My mother wasn't in the room, but she was in the hospital, as was I. For the purposes of registration, that counted as us having been "with" him when he died - they count being anywhere in the same building as "with", even if you weren't right there in the room at the moment of death.

Based on how lax that seems, and the fact that it was for legal purposes, I'd imagine that most people take a fairly relaxed view on how proximate you actually needed to be to be to the deceased to count as "being there" with them.

Being able to claim she was legally "there" with my dad when he died, in spite of having left to give the doctors more room when they were working on him, made my mother feel a lot better and less guilty. As with most things surrounding death, this seems like some more kind social padding to make the survivors feel better.
posted by terretu at 4:44 AM on May 28, 2015 [7 favorites]

I see it as a comforting phrase meant to reassure you that they had people around supporting them, as opposed to the opposite.
posted by BibiRose at 4:47 AM on May 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

This is news to me. Probably because in most cases in my life where death was known to be impending, the people in question were literally surrounded by their loving family. I always took the phrase to be literal.
posted by Jubey at 4:48 AM on May 28, 2015 [10 favorites]

When you say "implications" do you mean that it was used as a slight by the obituary writer against those who were not there? I'm not sure I'd read that into it, given the fact that just because one is not able to be there =/= unloving.

I generally view it as a stock phrase, because the alternative of "the aged person died alone with all the family far away" or getting into the details of who or who was not there (for what? scorekeeping?) is inappropriate and unnecessarily painful for funeral goers.
posted by Karaage at 4:49 AM on May 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Karaage: No, I didn't mean to suggest that the phrase was a slight against family members who weren't there or who were unloving.

From other answers, I see many agree that "surrounded by loving family" is a comforting stock phrase with a range of meanings. I guess it's like that other comforting stock phrase "died peacefully at home," which covers a range of circumstances--a painful death, a solitary death, a lonely death, or one would hope, an actual peaceful death.
posted by Elsie at 5:11 AM on May 28, 2015

My take on it has always been that it meant that the surrounding loving family was aware that the person was in his last days and were keeping in touch and would know when the death happened - whether or not they could physically attend him in those days. The opposite of 'surrounded' would mean that one died without the family expecting it to happen and perhaps not finding out for some time.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 5:16 AM on May 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

I always took it literally. I've seen obits specify something like, "She died with husband and her daughter Ann at her side." I figured if it said "surrounded by family" then it was 3+ family members in the room, or at least in the house/in the hospital waiting room.
posted by gatorae at 5:49 AM on May 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

I do believe it's a stock phrase that doesn't mean much, but I also believe it rules out occasions where that stock phase is obviously not applicable - the person was not estranged, the last surviving family member, etc. nor did he die while overseas on vacation. It implies to me that the death was not a sudden accident but more likely an illness - i.e. that the family knew about it with sufficient warning to booked a flight... but that's not necessarily true now that I think of it, I could imagine someone being "surrounded by loving family" at the hospital days or hours after a car wreck.

Definitely not a slight against family members who weren't there, but possibly a subtle "we did all we could" defensive statement by the family member(s) writing the obituary, if the family dynamic is screwed up enough.
posted by aimedwander at 5:50 AM on May 28, 2015

i have always read it as, "we knew this was coming, and prepared the best we could" as opposed to "this was sudden and unplanned."
posted by nadawi at 5:59 AM on May 28, 2015 [19 favorites]

I always assumed it was a euphemism that says the death was not sudden or wholly unexpected, and that there was enough time for family members to say goodbye while she was alive. I'd consider my husband's grandmother to have been surrounded by family as many people visited during her last few days, even though no one happened to be there at the exact moment she died (after several all-nighters by various family members, it happened to be at a time that everyone needed some rest; she'd been unconscious and any-day-now for a week).
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:07 AM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

I assumed it meant literally also. Not every single cousin necessarily, but that several family members were literally present at the moment of death or at least in the days and hours preceding death.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:20 AM on May 28, 2015

You can totally be surrounded by only one person. It's called a hug.
posted by sexyrobot at 6:23 AM on May 28, 2015 [9 favorites]

I am a bit raw on this, because I spent this past week literally sitting at the bedside of my uncle, who died of colon cancer a couple of days ago. We all took shifts, and there was not a moment that he wasn't surrounded by at least two or three people, holding his hands, making sure he got his pain medication every hour, and talking to him. He wasn't responsive for the final few days, and barely breathing, but the family didn't leave his side. His kids were the ones with him when he finally passed, which is appropriate, but I think that, when you have warning that you are dying, many families do surround their loved ones to protect and keep them company during their final days.
posted by xingcat at 6:40 AM on May 28, 2015 [10 favorites]

I've always read it as a way of stating that some form of physical or emotional support was available to the deceased, from at least some of their family members or close friends, at some point reasonably close to the time of death. So, in a sense, it's meant to be taken literally (some degree of the above did occur), but not necessarily specifically-literally/pedantically. (I mean, c'mon. How big and far-flung is the average family? How far into degrees of relationship must we go, to determine that all had attended? Etc.)

I think it has implications ... causing mourners who could not be present to feel guilty.

I suspect it is intended to have -- and usually has -- the opposite effect. If I was feeling guilty about not being there for someone in their final days, I'd feel that way before reading their obit. Learning that they hadn't lacked for comfort would make me feel better, not worse.
posted by credible hulk at 6:42 AM on May 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

It depends on who wrote the obituary and what _they_ believe it means. Since that could be anything, and since many obituaries are written by non-professional-writers, I don't think you can count on the phrase having a consistent meaning.

As with, unfortunately, many words and phrases in English.
posted by amtho at 6:49 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I actually tKe it as a completely different euphemism: I think it's generally an indication that the death was expected, and not sudden. And I think there is an expectation in that case that at least some of the family should have been there.
posted by catatethebird at 6:55 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

In writing my mother's obituary, I used the phrase 'in the presence of her husband and daughter'. There was a priest (a family friend) there also, but I decided that wasn't relevant.
Her death was sudden and unexpected, but she was in the hospital at the time and my dad was with her when she stroked, and I was there shortly after... so I didn't use the phrase 'passed unexpectedly/suddenly' because in my mind, there is an unspoken sort of dropping-dead-from-a-heart-attack-out-of-the-blue-ness to that wording.

As a side note, my mom was forever reading the obit columns and remarking on them, the way you'd read other parts of the newspaper... From that, I do think the 'loving family/friends' IS intended to
a) let the reader know the deceased was loved and had family, and wasn't alone at the end.
b) let people who know the deceased personally, who may have been unable to visit or check in, that they were cared for and allay guilt and regret.
posted by ApathyGirl at 7:23 AM on May 28, 2015 [3 favorites]

I suppose there may be specific cultures where 'surrounded by loving family' is actually a passive-aggressive dig - the same way 'bless your heart' is... but I don't think that's a common interpretation.
posted by ApathyGirl at 7:26 AM on May 28, 2015

When my mother died, the funeral home director asked specifically who was there. Like xingcat, we had been taking shifts during her final days so that someone would always be there. My siblings and father and I were all there when she passed. He put "surrounded by her family" in the obit based on that info. He wasn't going to put that statement otherwise.

I guess I never took it as a stock phrase.
posted by schnee at 7:40 AM on May 28, 2015

I have always taken this phrase literally. Now I am not so certain. Usually, when I don't see this phrase, I see instead something like, "Alan is survived by his wife Becky, his two children, Charlie and Diane, and his four grandchildren, Edward, Francine, George, and Helen."
posted by tckma at 8:05 AM on May 28, 2015

I wrote my father's obituary and put in what I wanted. It probably depends who wrote the obituary notice what was meant.
posted by winna at 9:27 AM on May 28, 2015

As opposed to "Died Suddenly" or "Died in an Accident"... Just an indicator that this was a normal or expected death.
posted by Gungho at 10:32 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's definitely a stock obituary phrase that I've always taken to imply that the death was as a result of some kind of chronic illness (versus "after a brief illness" which usually implies something like a fatal heart attack or other unexpected, fast-moving cause of death.) I've always taken "surrounded by their family" more or less at face value; if a loved one has been chronically terminally ill there is often time for family to be there when things take a downward turn.
posted by usonian at 10:36 AM on May 28, 2015

I pretty much assume usonian's interpretation when I read that phrase in an obituary. For example, when I wrote my dad's obituary, I used the general phrasing "surrounded by loving family" to represent all the love and support he had leading up to his death. He was ill for a very long time and was under home hospice care, and we knew he had little time left, so the days leading up to his death were filled with family and friends. Though my husband and I were the only two family members with him at the moment of death, many family members had seen him that day. It's more of a comforting phrase meant to convey the love that surrounded him as he was dying.
posted by bedhead at 11:33 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I can say that it was used very literally when my family had someone close to them pass. We were all there, and I don't think we'd have used it in the obit otherwise. But everybody is different, and I don't think that there is a ton of fact checking in obituaries.
posted by montag2k at 12:05 PM on May 28, 2015

"In the presence of loved ones" would be a better phrase, I think.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:33 PM on May 28, 2015

In the cases where I've had loved ones pass, I was there every day, and shuttling people back and forth and generally taking care of family stuff. I was not literally in the room when they passed in the night. But was I "there" for them? Yes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:10 AM on May 29, 2015

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