The sheriff stood on my front porch with a woman who was wearing fancy clothes — her stylish boots had high heels, and she wore a colorful silk scarf around her neck — obviously not clothes an on-duty female sheriff would wear. Before the sheriff could even open his mouth, my brain did a quick assessment:

The sheriff must be here to tell me Joshua’s been arrested. My son had been in trouble with the police before. His schizophrenia made it hard for him to navigate society’s rules. Trespassing once, various arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, a bad check charge once when he was scammed by a friend. But ever since Colorado had legalized recreational marijuana, he’d mostly managed to stay out of trouble.

Wait a minute. They’ve never come to the house to tell me Joshua’s been arrested before. And what is this fancy woman doing here with the sheriff?

The sheriff starts to talk: “Are you Joanne Kelly?”

“I am,” I answer.

And then it hits me. They have come to tell me Joshua has died. The woman is a victim’s advocate. Fear grips my stomach and squeezes hard.

“Are you the mother of Joshua Wetmore?” the sheriff continues.

“I am.” But how can he be dead? Did someone shoot him? Did someone lace his marijuana with fentanyl? He can’t be dead.

“I am very sorry to inform you that Joshua has died.” The sheriff and the fancy lady are still standing on the porch.

I am standing in the doorway. “No, no, no,” I moan, doubling over and covering my mouth with my hand.

“May we come in?” the sheriff asks.

Inviting them in had not occurred to me. My brain had been busy with other tasks. I open the door wider and step back to make room for them to enter. I can’t talk. I can’t think. I start to weep.

We sit at the dining room table. I am shaking. The sheriff tells me Joshua was at the Boulder bus station when he collapsed and had a small seizure of some sort. The bus station personnel got out the defibrillator but when they attached the leads, the machine told them not to administer a shock. Paramedics arrived shortly after, and they worked on him for a good forty-five minutes before they gave up and transported his body to the morgue.

The victim’s advocate keeps trying to push a folder at me, which she tells me is full of information about grief resources. I tell her I am an expert at grief, having lost my husband two years ago and my sister 18 months ago.

Neither of them has any information on what caused Joshua’s death, but they give me the coroner’s business card. The coroner will do an autopsy and will share his findings with me.

The sheriff and the fancy lady are kind, and they help me make a few phone calls to find a friend to come over and stay with me. My hands are shaking too hard to use the phone myself. Sue, the woman who rents my downstairs apartment comes upstairs to offer support. Finally, my friend Beverly arrives. She brings her toothbrush and her pajamas in case I want her to spend the night.

Two days later the coroner calls to tell me it looks like pneumonia was the cause of Joshua’s death, but they won’t issue a definitive cause of death until the drug screen comes back – and that can take anywhere from ten to twelve weeks. It ends up taking only six weeks and the only drug they find in his system is a little bit of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The COVID test comes back negative. They issue the death certificate with pneumonia as the cause of death.

I am heartbroken. Joshua, my firstborn, was 48 years old, and I couldn’t make him do anything. He had had a horrible cough for months, but he refused to go to the doctor, despite my nagging, my urging, my begging.

How was Joshua’s death different from Alan’s death via medical aid in dying?

First and foremost, Joshua’s death was completely unexpected. When Alan died, I knew he had a fatal illness two-and-a-half years before he died, and I knew with a fair degree of certainty a full year in advance of his death that he would use medical aid in dying to end his suffering. Knowing in advance didn’t make it less sad, but it did give me time to process the emotional enormity of his death, to prepare, to say goodbye, to whisper a final “I love you.” To hold his hand and caress his face as he departed this world. It was hard, for sure, but nothing like the gut-wrenching pain of finding the sheriff on your front porch. The sheriff who has come to tell you that your child has died on the floor of the bus station, surrounded by people who have no clue who he is.

I wonder if Joshua realized he was dying, or if it happened so suddenly that he never suspected. If one second he was looking at bus schedules and the next second he was being welcomed to an ocean of bliss by the spirits of his grandparents, his stepfather, and a few aunts and uncles.

Maybe dying suddenly is easier on the person who is dying and harder on his loved ones. Who can say? This much I know for sure: The deaths of my husband, my sister, and my son have left permanent holes in my heart. I will go on living, but I will never be the same.