Maria Buscaglia
Maria Buscaglia

We showed each other the way to die

‘I’ve forgiven everybody, including myself,’ Maria said. ‘I have no regrets. I’m at peace and am ready to die.’ She chose death with dignity, surrounded by a community.

Leslie Zucker is a certified professional life coach, a facilitator of a women's group, and a co-founder of Brattleboro Conscious Dance and ParaLabs, a collaborative experiment in awakening to our individual and collective potential.

Maria Buscaglia, who died Nov. 14, 2023, at age 63, will be honored this month, on her birthday, by her family and friends at a private celebration of life.

"If you'd like to learn more about empowering people at the end of life, visit and consider making a donation to support the cause," writes Zucker, who welcomes

the opportunity to continue the conversation. Contact her at [email protected].

Editor's note: This piece is among several recently submitted, at least in part, in response to Fran Lynggaard Hansen's cover story about Dummerston resident Don Hazelton's final days and his decision to use Vermont's Patient Choice at End of Life law (Act 39) ["A matter of choice," News, April 17]. We appreciate the community conversation it has inspired around terminal illness and our own agency over our lives and death with dignity.

WEST DUMMERSTON-Maria Buscaglia was our motivation, community was our foundation, and Spirit was our guide. Together, we created our own experiential, immersive, spiritual death doula training.

Maria was our dear friend, spiritual sister, and way-shower. A longtime friend to one person in our community, she moved here and joined our group of tight friends who do a lot of practices together regularly such as drumming, dancing, potlucks, holidays, hikes, storytelling, retreats, and more.

Maria's diagnosis of breast cancer landed on top of decades of depression. For two years, she diligently researched and tried a myriad of alternative and traditional treatments.

After nearly a year, the tumor in her right breast was blocking the lymph nodes and nerves nearby, causing swelling and loss of the motor function of her right arm. She carefully held that arm up for months to ease the pain while diligently trying different practices to disable diseased cells and stimulate the lymph so it could return to the bloodstream and support the immune system.

Eventually, Maria's breast cancer metastasized into her liver and became a terminal illness. There would be no more treatments.

The story that would unfold over the following months - of Maria's death with dignity on her own terms - is full of the love, care, and competence of our community and her family.

* * *

Getting the news that her end was inevitable, Maria preferred to use the medicine that would end her life with dignity, made possible by medical aid in dying.

"Medical aid in dying" is a modern term for an ancient idea that evokes the controversial question of who owns a life. Fortunately, it's legal in Vermont - another reason to love our small but mighty state.

We met with Toni Kaeding, board co-chair and director of Patient Choices Vermont, the organization that educates Vermonters about the option of medical aid in dying brought forth by the Patient Choice at End of Life law (Act 39).

Toni helped us understand how the medicine works and the most important requirements - that Maria be of sound mind in making the decision to use it, and that she physically drink the medicine herself, without anyone's help.

Able to meet those two requirements, Maria felt empowered by the option to choose the timing of her own death.

Yet she also considered the feelings of her son, Cristian, and his father, Chris, about this choice.

With respect for their emotions about her decision, she held open the option of dying by fasting. For weeks, when either option was possible, we educated ourselves about the differences in dying by fasting versus taking the medicine, so we could be prepared to support Maria however she would need us.

* * *

Maria's personal, spiritual, and professional work exposed her to suffering in many ways. Prior to her diagnosis, she was a caretaker of the dying - a death doula herself, really, although she was too humble to claim that honorable title.

Her work as a caretaker was an expression of the Bodhisattva vow she had taken when she was 20 years old. The vow in Buddhism is, among many other meanings, a dedication to compassionately help all sentient beings.

Not surprisingly, the aspiration of living up to the vow was a personal and spiritual challenge for Maria, one that weighed heavy on her heart. She knew, firsthand, the depths of suffering as a sentient being. Thanks to her profession, she also knew firsthand the inner work that could be done at the end of a life.

And she embraced it.

* * *

One night, Maria told us, "I've forgiven everybody, including myself. I have no regrets. I'm at peace and am ready to die."

This statement affirmed what I'd been witnessing: Maria had been releasing the self-doubt, burdens, and confusion she'd carried for so long.

As her body continued to weaken, finally she was ready to ask for more support. She called six women to gather for her final "Women's Council" - our group that we formed in 2017.

We knew exactly what to do: set intentions, luxuriate in plenty of silent meditation, share deeply, sing, play instruments, grieve, laugh, massage each other, snuggle, and share meals.

It was the last one we had with Maria.

* * *

After that Women's Council, we moved Maria, with only a few belongings, into what is affectionately called "the church," a former Catholic sanctuary beautifully converted by artists into a sacred gathering space of our community.

The church has a lot of its original vestiges such as the stage, the choir balcony, and the confessional. It is filled with handmade objects and paintings by local artists, and countless memories, surely made by those who used the space well before our time, and most definitely by our community.

Chris and Cristian moved into the church with Maria, carefully managing her increasing pain levels, supporting her needs, and spending precious, tender time together.

Maria invited a few people from her family of origin to visit from New Jersey so she could say her final goodbyes. Our community invited a gathering at the church for Maria's friends in western Massachusetts - an hour away - where she had lived much of her adult life.

These gatherings allowed many final goodbyes while she was lucid and even upbeat.

We had our weekly Thursday night drum circle, enjoying her company singing, laughing, and tapping the rhythm with us. We continued to visit Maria at the church as she gracefully still managed her own schedule of visitors while winding down and resting more. We paid special attention to keeping her space at the church quiet and sacred, yet we were next door mobilizing our resources and tending to the many practical necessities.

Meanwhile, a beautiful mix of spiritual traditions was underway. We met with a close friend of Maria and Chris to learn about his lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and how we could incorporate best practices from the Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying.

He informed us of the ancient medicines and traditions that would provide Maria additional help with a smooth transition through death and the Bardo - the time, as the Tibetan Buddhists believe, between death and rebirth when reviews of life and karma happen.

* * *

Maria's pain continued, and she slept for most of the time, yet she was aware that we were all very close by, poised, and ready.

Enduring intense pain, Maria decided she would use the Patient Choice at End of Life law, and she set the date for the following Tuesday morning, just a few days away.

Hearing this, some of us acquired practical materials like ice packs, while others built an arbor of bendable saplings, adorned with cedar branches, dried grasses, flowers, and herbs.

We set up her deathbed in the center of the church with the adorned arbor and a statue of Shiva, one of the principal deities of Hinduism, just behind her.

On Maria's final night, we gathered in the church, welcoming in the four directions, a tradition of Native American tribes. We lit an outdoor fire that would remain lit, through her death and the wake, until she was cremated.

From a deeply weakened state, Maria received our love in the form of prayers, expressions of thanks, music, and song.

* * *

Tuesday morning, when we arrived at the church, Maria had already walked herself from her bedroom to her deathbed, beautifully adorned and awaiting her.

Each of us - her son, his wife, his father, and the six women whom she invited to witness her death - had some final one-on-one time with her.

We then sat in a circle around her, holding sacred silence, enhanced only by calming music of our own making. Many others were gathered outside the church around the fire holding sacred space for what was about to transpire.

Maria, feeling ready, asked for the anti-nausea medicine (a precursor to the final medicine) and drank it down. With her functioning hand, as if her son were a newborn, she gently stroked his head that rested on her chest. Sacred silence, tears, and love filled the space.

She asked for her final medicine. Without hesitation, she drank that down, chased the bitter taste with a clementine, and laid back peacefully.

Soon, one graceful cough gave way to her death.

The church bell was rung, signaling to those at the fire outside that the end had come.

* * *

That end was also a beginning. It marked the start of the next four hours in which we followed the tradition of the Tibetan Buddhists to place two items on Maria's chest. We were to neither touch her body nor begin the grieving process.

A Bhavachakra (wheel of life) was placed on her chest, representing the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, along with a gold leaf, commonly believed to keep the soul and body clean and pure as it passes on.

Rather than grief, scents and sounds filled the space. Sweetgrass, palo santo, frankincense, myrrh, and sage were lit, as they are believed to evoke protection, elevate spiritual connection, and be useful for transitioning.

The Native American flute, said to communicate love, filled the space, followed by the hang drum, an instrument based on the Caribbean steelpan, which offered a quiet, peaceful resonance.

Then the charango, a South American string instrument, paid homage to Maria's native country of Chile.

We also offered our own voices as the instruments. We chanted "Lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhino bhavantu," meaning "May all beings be happy and free" in Sanskrit, and "Assalamu alaikum," meaning "May peace be with you" in Arabic.

At the four-hour mark, the women tended to Maria's request of undressing her, cleaning her with rose water, and painting her body with ginkgo leaves, a symbol of strength, hope, and peace. We further adorned her beautifully and peacefully laid body with a white and gold silk sari from India, wings of hawks, bundles of sage, dried flowers, and dustings of cannabis and tobacco.

We created a prayer card and invitation for a viewing and ceremony to honor Maria's life that would begin the following day.

We sent it wide and far to friends from when she lived in Massachusetts, friends of her son and his father, friends and colleagues from her days as a caretaker, friends from the local dance community, former lovers and life partners.

Many of her loved ones came by the church throughout the day, while we served tea and baked goods, holding sacred space and tending to their comforts and emotions.

Some sat next to Maria, some held her hand and caressed her face, some admired her from afar.

Sniffles, tears, and silence mixed with the calming hang drum and the burning of frankincense resin.

* * *

As the sun set and candles were lit on every windowsill, altar, and available surface, the crowds who had been touched by Maria arrived for an evening ceremony.

The church was filled with concentric circles of people sitting on cushions with an assortment of drums and rattles in the middle. As is our community's custom, there wasn't a prepared schedule or defined plan for the ceremony, but rather loving intentions held by people practiced at collaborating and allowing Spirit to guide us.

One person opened the ceremony with a deeply heartfelt, beautifully crafted acknowledgement of the truth of who and what was there in that moment.

Some had experienced Maria's long struggle, some had fallen out of touch with her. Some had been intimately involved in Maria's dying process, and some had been unaware it was happening. Some had resolve and closure with Maria, and some did not. Some were comfortable with how Maria had ended her life, and some were not.

Yet, despite our differences, love was in the air.

We drummed, we sang sacred songs, we prayed, we shared memories and gratitude.

Someone asked, "What were her final words?" A few people shared those touching moments, including "see you on the other side," which Maria had said to the eldest in our community.

We passed around handmade ceramic cups of warm cacao, made from Maria's supply, as she always drank cacao in the mornings.

Chris recited the Heart Sutra from memory, which he and Maria recited to their son, Cristian, to calm him down and put him to sleep as a young child. The Heart Sutra is among the classic Buddhist scriptures and conveys the instructions to experience reality permeated by wisdom and compassion.

Finally, clementines were passed around, and we enjoyed them as an honoring of Maria's final taste. Clementines and avocados were always within Maria's reach.

* * *

The next morning, Chris and Cristian spent their final hours with Maria's body while listening to favorite songs that filled their home decades before. Once they felt complete, we, the women, prepared her body for cremation.

We covered her in more cedar, sage, cannabis, and tobacco, the clementine peels from the night before, and a few sacred objects that people had placed on her body. We wrapped her up in the sage green flannel sheet she left us specifically for this purpose and tied some twine around her like a gift. She really was a gift to the other realms.

Once the two people arrived to transport her body, we all carried Maria out of the church chanting, "We love you so much. We love you so much. We love you so much."

We placed her on the stretcher, zipped up the body bag, and watched her be driven away.

* * *

Meanwhile, the outdoor fire was going on day three. We huddled around it, sending our prayers up to the universe, catching a ride on the smoke of the cedar branches.

We laughed about how the signature on her email for many years said, "If you want to change culture, throw a better party."

Indeed, we had thrown her a party of a lifetime.

Maria had changed the experience of death and dying for many, if not all, of us. This is why we call her a way-shower - bold enough to live out her values and serve as an example for the rest of us.

Someone stayed the night outside with the fire to keep it lit until the next morning, when we'd do another ceremony at exactly the hour of Maria's cremation. We were ready, around the fire, watching the sparks and flames dance with the cold wind until eventually it faded out, a symbol of the end - in the ashes.

* * *

That was not the end of the ceremonies.

Chris, in his beautifully humble and knowledgeable shamanic ways, held Native American pipe ceremonies every day for the 49 days that Maria passed through the Bardo.

Her ashes were placed in front of him, along with sacred objects he's accumulated over the decades. These ceremonies included praying with a special tobacco pipe given to Chris by the Native American elders who taught him such rituals.

Tobacco is known by Native Americans as the unifying thread of communication between humans and spiritual powers. Our community gathered around Chris for these pipe ceremonies, which allowed many of us to grieve and celebrate the life and death of Maria together, in community.

* * *

In the following months, as we cleared out Maria's very small, light-filled apartment, I admired how she lived out her value of leaving only a very small footprint on Mother Earth.

Going through her humble belongings, I smiled at well-worn dishware from the '70s and free furniture that she'd collected from neighbors' giveaways.

Maria experienced environmental grief, suffering deep sadness about the loss of our natural world and its creatures. The books about the plight of Mother Earth were soiled by her tears. Her concern for her physical and mental well-being was evident in the shelves lined with obscure vitamins, supplements, tinctures, and medicinal herbs.

Again, Maria was the way-shower, bold enough to live out her values and serve as an example for the rest of us.

As I remember Maria, in all her glorious roles - the ghoster, the trickster, the Gemini - and as I think of the sparkle in her green eyes, I find so much to be thankful for.

I give thanks to the medical professionals who cared for Maria during her battle with cancer and to the pioneers and advocates who made medical aid in dying possible in Vermont. It is with sincere thanks to the medicine that our community benefited from such a healing and unforgettable experience of death - possibly, a transformation in our relationship to death.

This journey showed me the power we have as a community to hold steadily strong and subtly soft energies simultaneously.

It helped us to recognize our abilities to create immense beauty and cultivate immense compassion. We set aside our own needs, and we renewed our patience with one another.

We faced our own fears and stepped up to serve. We shared our love with those closest to us and also those from wide and far.

Some of us prayed that someday, when our turn comes, we may be so blessed. I felt that, if given a terminal diagnosis, I wished to be surrounded by my friends and family and end my life with dignity in the moment of my choosing, just as Maria did.

Grácias, querida Maria, for showing the way.

This Voices Dispatch was submitted to The Commons.

This piece, published in print in the Voices section or as a column in the news sections, represents the opinion of the writer. In the newspaper and on this website, we strive to ensure that opinions are based on fair expression of established fact. In the spirit of transparency and accountability, The Commons is reviewing and developing more precise policies about editing of opinions and our role and our responsibility and standards in fact-checking our own work and the contributions to the newspaper. In the meantime, we heartily encourage civil and productive responses at [email protected].

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