Complicated Grief and Cognitive Dissonance in “The Descendants”

Here are two terms that fit the new movie “The Descendents” perfectly: complicated grief and cognitive dissonance. This film tells the story of Matt King (played by George Clooney), a lawyer and businessman whose wife Liz is in a coma following a boating accident. Matt is left to to handle Liz’s final days and reconnect with his daughters, 12-year-old Scottie and 17-year-old Alexandra.

**SPOILER ALERT** I’m going to have to share a few details that wouldn’t be obvious from the trailers and official synopsis. These details wouldn’t ruin the movie, though.

In this movie, there is no discussion over whether the mother will die. Early in the movie, Matt learns from Liz’s doctor that she is not going to come out of her coma. Liz already has advance directives in place, so Matt doesn’t even have to agonize over whether to end life support. Rather, this film is about Matt and his family and friends dealing with grief over their loss. 

To me, the characters in this film seem to be especially vulnerable to complicated grief. Anyone can experience this long-lasting, especially intense, traumatic grief, but certain factors may contribute to complicated grief, including the circumstances of the death and the relationships of the bereaved person to the person who died and to the people who remain. We see many of these factors in “The Descendants,” beginning with the fact that Liz, a previously healthy, active, and vital woman, is now dying because of an accident. As it turns out, she was also cheating on her husband, a fact previously known only to her older daughter, Alexandra. This circumstance inevitably affects the grief processes of several characters.

In fact, the various survivors all show different sides of grieving, both “normal” and complicated. Here are a few of the characters and factors impacting their grief:

  • Matt, the husband, has to deal with guilt that he wasn’t there for his wife, anger that she was having an affair, and the complications of caring for his daughters and other family members in their grief. Oh, and he also has to make a huge business decision that has him in the public eye.
  • Alexandra, the 17-year-old daughter, had a huge fight with her mom the last time she saw her. She’s the one who tells her dad about the affair. She also has to help her dad care for her little sister.
  • Scottie, the 10-year-old daughter, is misbehaving at school and home and navigating rocky relationships with peers. She thinks of herself as an artist, but her photos of her comatose mother are scaring the other kids. She’s looking to those around her to figure out what to do while they’re trying to protect her as much as possible.
  • The teenage friend, Sid, seems clueless, but provides a special kind of support for Alexandra and Scottie. (He also provides the audience with some comic relief, thank goodness!)
  • Liz’s father is losing his only daughter and blaming the son-in-law for not protecting her well enough. He is also caring for a wife with dementia.
  • Liz’s mother has dementia and apparently has no understanding that her daughter is dying.
  • The man with whom Liz is having an affair, didn’t know she was dying and has a family of his own and major business dealings to worry about.
  • That man’s wife didn’t know about the affair or Liz dying either.
  • An assortment of friends and family all have to be informed of Liz’s imminent death so they can say their goodbyes.
  • The doctor has to deliver the worst possible news and has a legal obligation to follow Liz’s wishes.

Complicated, right? And all of this takes place against the beautiful backdrop of Kauai, Hawaii, where Matt has to make the decision over whether to sell his family’s land inheritance, a huge tract that makes up some of the last undeveloped land in Hawaii. Here’s the dissonance: Matt is living in a tropical paradise but dealing with the travails of family life during a personal tragedy. He is also making an enormously significant business decision as the entire state of Hawaii watches, even as he sits at his wife’s hospital bedside. Matt has to be a compassionate parent, a responsible trustee, a responsive family representative, and a calm spokesperson for his wife, even while he is surely feeling angry and sad and guilty and, well, surprised. That’s cognitive dissonance for sure.

This film is great for many reasons, not the least of which are the actors’ performances of all the subtleties of grieving in this kind of situation. (I especially loved George Clooney as Matt and Shailene Woodley as Alexandra.) If you’re interested in the down and dirty realities of dealing with grief in complicated circumstances, though, “The Descendants” is not to be missed.

Have you seen “The Descendants” yet? What did you think? What other movies do a good job of portraying grief? Please join the conversation below!

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