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George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller in "The Descendants."

Grief on the big screen

Recent films about losing a loved one help us grapple with the reality of death and mourning

By David G. Hallman

Though we all at some time will be confronted with the imminent death of a loved one — a mother, father, spouse, sibling, child or close friend — there is often the temptation to postpone saying our goodbyes. Perhaps we’re refusing to acknowledge the inevitable. Maybe we’re too traumatized or just too awkward.

Three years ago, my partner of 33 years and I were faced with that challenge. Bill was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer. As I describe in my memoir August Farewell, we suddenly found ourselves with little time left.

As Bill lay dying in a hospital bed in our living room, he was ready to go. I wasn’t ready to let him go. We were in very different spaces, and that added to the pain of those last days. But, thankfully, we took seriously the reality of his approaching death and talked a lot — about our life together, our families and friends, our travels, our faith and our love for each other. And we said our goodbyes.

A few days after Bill’s funeral, I went to see Colin Firth in the film A Single Man. I didn’t know anything about the plot, but I like Colin Firth and thought a movie would be a good distraction. It turned out to be the story of a gay man coming to terms with the sudden death of his longtime partner. I sat through it in shock. I came home afterwards, cried for four hours and then cleaned for another four.

More recently, I’ve gone to see two other films that grapple with the loss of a loved one. I was ambushed again, a basket case after both of them. I suspect I’m not alone. The Descendants and The Iron Lady push audiences into more honest, and painful, reflections about how we as individuals and as a society deal with grief. I’m no cinema historian, but there seems to be a trend toward more candour in films about how death affects us. Maybe film-going baby boomers are giving the subject more thought. Perhaps the movie industry is maturing. It can’t just be crass economics — realistic portrayals of death and grief hardly guarantee a box-office bonanza.

Based on the trailer, I had expected The Descendants to be a light-hearted George Clooney comedy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Clooney’s character, Matt King, has to come to grips with his wife being in a coma from which there is little chance of recovery. During the course of the movie, Matt takes the initiative to help various people say their goodbyes to her — their two daughters, his wife’s parents and close friends. Finally, in an angry scene near the end, it’s Matt’s turn. Theirs was a messy marriage, so this is a messy goodbye.

But no matter how complicated, the important thing is that the goodbye is said. Millions of people have seen The Descendants at the theatre, and millions more will see it on DVD. This brutally honest film has the potential to help us all move beyond denial and be more prepared for the realities of death — to overcome our anxieties and grab hold of that precious, sacred and never-to-come-again moment to say our goodbyes. And to remember that it’s precious not only for those of us left behind but also for the person who is dying.

When I went to The Iron Lady, I was anticipating a political biopic about one of our era’s most controversial leaders, and perhaps a tragedy of classical proportions about the cost of arrogance. I wasn’t prepared for the film’s sympathetic emphasis on Margaret Thatcher’s private life and personal struggles, in particular her relationship with Dennis Thatcher, who was not only her husband and lover but also her most-trusted adviser. Nor was I prepared for its searing portrayal of how the loss of a loved one affects the aging of the one left behind.

Portrayed with Oscar-winning virtuosity by Meryl Streep, the Margaret Thatcher we see in the film is constantly flashing back to the past to deal with the struggles of the present, imagining her beloved Dennis is still with her. The coping mechanism seems to work for her, but those around her find it unhealthy. So she masks it.

She has dementia. There’s no other word for it. By portraying it so frankly in such a well-known personality, the film asks us to be less dismissive of the millions of ordinary people who also live with dementia — and to appreciate the complexity of their internal emotional lives.

The film has many critics. Some contend that it evokes more sympathy than Thatcher deserves. Others are outraged that it depicts the dementia of a living person. For me, both criticisms are of little concern. I have watched the deterioration and death of the one I loved most in the world. I am all in favour of broadening society’s conversation about love and loss.

If The Iron Lady and The Descendants are any indication of the direction in which that conversation is headed, people of faith may find they’re on the outside looking in. Religion, whether it’s in the form of a personal faith or participation in a community of faith, is utterly absent from both films. I can only assume that the filmmakers concluded that faith no longer plays a role in death and dying. That’s sobering.

Many people have asked if the fact that Bill and I had a deep faith made his dying easier. It did for him. On the night he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he dreamed of walking and talking with Jesus in a garden. My faith did not make losing him easier for me. But it did make, and still makes, my mourning process immeasurably more profound. I hope I’m not being presumptuous to suggest that doors that are open to me are closed to the characters in these films. I wonder if the secularization of death involves another loss we will someday mourn. 

David G. Hallman was the United Church’s energy and environment specialist and also co-ordinated the World Council of Churches’ climate change program.
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