Carol Silver Elliott

The Last Ecstatic Days

I recently had the opportunity to screen the new documentary “The Last Ecstatic Days,” the story of the end of a young man’s life.  Full disclosure, the director and producer is Scott Kirschenbaum, who has done some other powerful documentaries and also has the distinction of being my cousin.

“The Last Ecstatic Days” tells the story of Ethan Sisser.  Ethan, a young man in his 30’s, healthy and fit and strong, received a diagnosis of a terminal brain tumor.  Surgeries and treatment are to no avail and Ethan faces the end of his life.

He makes a decision that he is going to document the end of life, that he wants to share these experiences with the world and that he wants to embrace the “learning” on his journey with positive energy and connection, on both a personal and global level.

Ethan refers to himself as E3, “embodied, empowered and ecstatic” as he faces the inevitable with calm, grace and clarity.  The film shows these last weeks of life in a way that is raw, unvarnished and also gentle and beautiful. I did not want to watch Ethan die and yet I found that I could not take my eyes from him.  His words, even to the end, were thoughtful and gracious, calm and loving and his gentle nature will live with me for a long time.

In the work that we do with older adults, end of life is often a topic.  We often see that elders are ready, as Ethan says, “to leave this body” but families cannot let go.  They insist on extraordinary measures, increasing pain and suffering in an effort to have one more day or one more week or even one more hour.  This is not intended as cruelty, although that can be the result.  It comes from love that does not know how to say goodbye. It comes from guilt over the “should haves” of life.  It comes from magical thinking that, someway, somehow, their loved one will suddenly recover and return to who they once were.

Ethan is crystal clear about his decision and acceptance and, as a young person, has the ability and will to execute it.  A friend provides a home with a view of beautiful mountains, the hospice staff and medical professionals support him, his family rallies around him and they take this walk together, in harmony and hand in hand.

A friend of mine, who also works with older adults, has had experience with palliative care veterinarians.  She remarked to me that we “treat our animals more kindly than we do our loved ones.” How often would a person, given the choice, prefer their last days like Ethan’s? How many would prefer to be surrounded with love and soothing scents, soft music and loving touches? Contrast that with the bright lights of medical facilities, the pounding on the chest (and breaking of ribs of CPR), the buzz of activity and noise and tasks being performed.

We often talk about giving ourselves some “grace,” being kind, practicing self-care. Should we not find a way to give our loved ones, and ourselves, grace at end of life, to transition with peace and calm and gratitude? Ethan teaches us that such a process is possible.  May we find ways to allow Ethan, and others like him, to open our eyes and our hearts.

About the Author
Carol Silver Elliott is President and CEO of The Jewish Home Family, which runs NJ's Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living, Jewish Home Foundation and Jewish Home at Home. She joined The Jewish Home Family in 2014. Previously, she served as President and CEO of Cedar Village Retirement Community in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is past chair of LeadingAge and the Association of Jewish Aging Services.
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