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In the film The Descendants, Matthew King’s wife Elizabeth falls into a coma after a boat-racing accident and leaves him with their two daughters Alexandra (17), who is a recovering drug addict, and Scottie (10), who has behavioral issues at home and at school. He is hopeful for her condition and plans to re-kindle their distant relationship when she wakes. He is also managing the upcoming sale of his family’s land in Hawaii. Elizabeth is revealed to be clinically brain dead and will be taken off life support. Alexandra reveals to Matt that Elizabeth was unfaithful with a man named Brian. Matt plans to track him down to let him know about her condition, as their friends insist Elizabeth truly loves Brian. Matt is constantly facing trouble and outbursts from Elizabeth’s father, who blames him for her death, from Scottie, Alexandra, and her friend Sid, who is oblivious and abrasive, and from his family over the decision to sell the land. When Matt finds Brian, he learns that not only will Brian benefit from the sale, but that Brian has a wife and kids who are unaware of his infidelity. Matt reveals Elizabeth’s state to Brian, who makes it clear that he did not love her. Family members and friends all say their final goodbyes to Elizabeth. Due to Brian’s benefit, Matt’s visit to the land with his children, and the pleas of locals, Matt decides not to sell the land, much to the displeasure of his family. Brian does not visit, but his wife does, who “forgives” Elizabeth for trying to “destroy” her family. Elizabeth’s body is cremated, and her ashes are scattered into the ocean. The final scene shows Matt, Alexandra, and Scottie sitting in silence watching television and sharing ice cream: their future uncertain, but hopeful.
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The main stressor that the family faces is the accident and ultimate death of Elizabeth. At the same time, they are also each experiencing varying degrees of “stress pileup.” This concept indicates that the collection of stressors they are facing can exacerbate the overall level of stress they are facing at this time (Price, Price, & McKenry 8). Matthew is specifically troubled by Elizabeth’s state, learning of her infidelity, and the weight of the decision to sell his land. Alexandra is contending with her recovering addiction, her school troubles, and her discovery of her mother’s actions. Scottie’s behavior is made worse by her mother’s condition and her lack of friends. These issues are all directly related to the main stressor of their mother’s condition. This stressor appears to have a greater effect on the family as it is both non-normative and an off-time development. Its nature as a non-normative stressor comes from the sudden nature of the accident, and while the death of a Mother is an eventual normal developmental milestone, the point at which it occurs defines it as “off-time” and causes it to be especially disruptive (Price, Price, & McKenry 33). Elizabeth’s father shows signs of extreme distress due to the non-normative nature of the experience, as it is unexpected for a parent to outlive their child. Matt initially shows signs of denial and expected them to spend many years together.
The family originally appeared to have a positive collective perception of the outcome of Elizabeth’s condition. Both Matt and Scottie expressed their plans for what they would say and do with Elizabeth once she woke up. Alexandra initially wanted to keep her distance from Elizabeth. Their perceptions changed upon learning of her impending death. Matt learns first and appears completely distraught at losing his chance to make amends. His perception changes again in the context of her infidelity, clearly struggling with the idea of having already “lost” her. He expresses fear over raising his daughters without her, worrying that he is inadequate as a parent. He describes himself in the narration as “the backup parent.” Alexandra’s perception of Elizabeth’s death seemed to be heavily influenced by her anger at her mother for her infidelity, and her close relationship and admiration for her. When speaking to her mother, she expressed her desire to be exactly like her, but also expressed anger that she and her father weren’t “good enough.” To her, Elizabeth’s emotional and literal absence leaves her without closure for her feelings of inadequacy. Matt and Alexandra seem to share Scottie’s final perception of the event, as while they all seem in the process of grieving, Elizabeth’s death necessitates a change in their family system and a newfound closeness if they are to survive. This change is reflected in the final scene, wherein Matt, Scottie, and Alexandra sit together and share ice cream in a display of normal family interaction.
Matt and his family did not completely lack coping resources but did mismanage and underutilize them in some cases. Their family is financially capable of taking care of Elizabeth without any indication of stress on their savings. Matt does not seem distressed by his lack of time spent at work, and the family takes a sudden plane trip without a second thought. This financial resource is completely untouched otherwise, as Matt does not consider therapy or professional counseling for himself or the family. The family also lacked deeper emotional support from their extended family. Matt’s relationship with his family hinges on his decision to sell the land, and their relationship with Elizabeth’s family is strained after the accident. They do, however, have support from their friends, who offered condolences and material support by cooking meals for them. Alexandra specifically called in support from her friend Sid, who remained with her throughout the film. Matt utilizes the hospital’s doctor and counselor effectively to help inform Scottie of Elizabeth’s death. This is a moment of positive resource utilization, but also highlights how little Matt uses professionals throughout the grieving process, even though he is perfectly capable of accessing them.
In response to his wife’s condition and the responsibility he faces, Matt utilizes a form of “problem focused coping”, which is defined as: “…when an individual attempts to establish a semblance of control within an uncontrollable situation” (Price, Price, & McKenry 64). He is incapable of doing anything to better her condition, and the nature of her will means he has no control over her fate. To combat these feelings of helplessness, he initially tightly controls who knows about Elizabeth. He tells those outside of his immediate family, such as his cousin and a friend of Elizabeth’s involved in the accident, that she is doing very well. He also puts great importance on finding Elizabeth’s affair partner Brian and informing him of her situation. While it clearly distresses him, it is something he can do “for her,” as he believes it is something she would want. Finally, Matt hides her infidelity from Elizabeth’s parents and Scottie, most likely because he feels that while he cannot manage the grief they feel over her death, he can at least prevent them from feeling more if they were aware of such. Alexandra and Scottie, conversely, utilize varying methods to manage their actions and emotions in response to the stressor. This type of coping can involve the utilization of social support, or the abuse of substances. (Price, Price, & McKenry 13). Alexandra relies on Sid’s presence to help her cope, and while she is initially reluctant to engage with her Mother’s death at all, she puts great effort into assisting Matt with his attempts to find and confront Brian. Scottie masks her distress through social outbursts: her creation of a scrapbook of Elizabeth’s comatose form is an attempt to proclaim that she is unphased by her condition. Scottie is socially isolated from her peers, and relies on her family for support and attention, which she gains by acting out. Their methods are collectively varied in their effectiveness. Matt does not find the control he desires over Elizabeth’s condition, but he exercises his executive power over his family’s land to refuse the sale. He also finds some mutual emotional support in Alexandra and Scottie at the end. Alexandra helps Matt settle the issue with Brian and re-negotiates a new role in the family to assist in watching over Scottie. It is difficult to determine Scottie’s ultimate state, as she does not speak much of her emotions near the end of the film. However, she seems to be functioning with Matt and Alexandra’s help. Families & Change defines a family crisis as a point in which: “Family boundaries are no longer maintained, customary roles and tasks are no longer performed, and the family members are no longer functioning at optimal physical or psychological levels” (Price, Price, & McKenry 12). Based on these criteria, the family clearly went through a crisis in the mid and early stages of the film. The established boundaries that kept Scottie in school and with Elizabeth, Alexandra at her boarding school, and Matt almost exclusively at work were completely dissolved. Both Scottie and Alexandra lash out at each other and Matt in uncharacteristic ways, as Matt frequently comments on their usage of language. Matt and the children do not adequately perform the tasks that Elizabeth previously managed by relying on food from other families and being unaware of the pool cleaner’s schedule. During the period of crisis, they each also show signs of impaired functioning. Matt appears frequently on the verge of breakdown and has a dissociative episode after learning of Brian’s involvement in the sale. Alexandra and Scottie both exhibited visible grief and stress by lashing out and misbehaving. Scottie specifically directs a derogatory gesture at the man involved in Elizabeth’s accident.
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Matt personally enacts Rando’s “Six R’s” model of coping by engaging in: “…recognition of loss, reacting to separation, recollection and reexperiencing the deceased and the relationship, relinquishing old attachments and assumptive world, readjusting to the move into a new world without forgetting the old, and reinvesting(p.45)” (Price, Price, & McKenry 77). Firstly, he understands and accepts her approaching death after his conversation with the Doctor. Then, he reacts to their separation by focusing on seeing her final wishes through. When he learns of her infidelity, he re-evaluates their closeness and time together, and comes to peace with it by encouraging Brian to go see her. After Brian’s wife visits, the quiet final moment he has with Elizabeth signifies his acceptance of a world without her, while acknowledging the importance of his life with her. His efforts to manage his relationship with his children represent the re-investing of his time and energy into his family. The family’s collective grief also manifests in a process known as “meaning construction,” wherein they personally assign meaning to the event and its outcome. (Price, Price, & McKenry 84). Matt first believes that Elizabeth’s accident is a chance for him to fix their relationship when she recovers. It is a call to action for him, and most importantly an opportunity to fix things. Members in the same family can assign different meaning to an event based on their own beliefs, ideas, and knowledge. Elizabeth’s Father Scott considers the accident a result of Matt’s “stinginess” and refusal to buy Elizabeth her own boat or entertain her with nice things. In his mind, Elizabeth was a good woman undeserving of what happened to her; therefore, it was the fault of those around her who caused her stress. Finally, Alexandra’s private knowledge of her affair causes her to construct a warped view of the accident, initially leaving her angry and avoidant while the rest of the family is fearful for her safety and upset.
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