By Gail Rubin, The Doyenne of Death®
The Descendants helps start funeral planning conversations around advance directives and end-of-life issues. It also shows how a party can be the center of a good goodbye BEFORE someone dies. You also get a good look at cremated remains, if you’ve never seen them up close.
Hawaiian land baron Matt King (George Clooney) has been having marital issues with his wife Elizabeth. The film opens with her riding in a powerboat race. The director Alexander Payne infers the accident that puts her in a vegetative state. As the film starts, we hear Matt’s thoughts as he sits in her room, looking at her motionless body on life support. He’s been there for 23 days.
“We hadn’t spoken in days. In a way, we hadn’t really spoken in months,” he says. “If you’re doing this to get my attention, Liz, it’s working. I’m ready now. I’m ready to talk. I’m ready to change. I’m ready to be a real husband and a real father. Just wake up. Please Liz, just wake up.”
This internal dialogue reminds us of the importance of being present with those we love, every single day. It can be so easy to let other interests and daily concerns crowd out our attention to the people closest to us in our families. It also lets us know he has been a less-than-attentive father to his two girls, and he’s about to find out his wife has been unfaithful to him.
The Importance of Advance Directives
Early on, Matt gets the news that Elizabeth’s condition has deteriorated. She has no eye or brain stem responses. Three doctors have determined she will never recover. She had an advance directive stating she does not want to be kept alive by artificial means. Matt asks if she’s taken off the machines, and the doctor says, “It’s not if but when.” The doctor says he has a legal obligation to take her off of life support.
Matt asks how long she will last, and the doctor says, “It’s hard to say, it could be a few days, it could be a couple of weeks… I know I’ve got to get the ball rolling on the organ donations right away.” He advises Matt to get Elizabeth’s many friends in to say goodbye as soon as possible.
This scene is instructive on several fronts. The doctor breaks the news as gently as he can, and he displays great empathy. Both are sitting together at a table leaning in toward each other, making eye contact. The fact that Elizabeth had advance directives regarding life sustaining measures in case of vegetative conditions and she wanted to do organ donation provides a role model for others. She shows you’re never too young to put these directives in place.
Matt hosts a swell party gathering Elizabeth’s friends together (close up on fabulous food and drinks). Matt addresses the assembled crowd saying, “You’ve all asked questions about Elizabeth and I’ve given vague answers. But I’ve asked you all here today to tell you that her coma is permanent. She’s not going to make it. So this week, tomorrow in fact, as per her wishes we are going to unhook her from life support… I wanted to tell you all in person because you are all our dear friends, our best friends.”
A woman asks if people can go see her. Matt replies, “Yes, that’s the whole point, go see her as soon as possible… Everyone who loves Elizabeth deserves a chance to say goodbye.”
How many people would have the courage to take this public step to help your community process a forthcoming death like this? And with such style! In a way, this was the memorial service for Elizabeth while she was still alive. There is no memorial service shown later in the film.
Is it just me who has an issue with the well-used phrase, “He/She’s not going to make it”? I suppose the “make it” refers to making it back to health. Death is the ultimate finish line. She was just about to make it there.
Scattering Cremated Remains
Toward the end of the film, Matt and his two daughters go out on Honolulu Bay to scatter Liz’s ashes. The three of them sit in a decorated long boat. Each pour some of her remains into the water that she loved to boat upon. After all of the ashes are poured out, they remove their leis and float them upon the water. The last shot in the scene shows them from underwater, floating on the surface, making the shape of hearts.
This is a wordless scene, and yet you can see the emotion on the faces of the daughters and Matt. It’s a ceremony for the immediate family, a good goodbye.
The Descendants was released in 2011 and is rated R. It’s available on Netflix and can be purchased (as available) from Amazon.com.
About the author: Gail Rubin, The Doyenne of Death® is author of A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die and host of A Good Goodbye TV. She uses funny film clips in her presentations to help start serious conversations.