Mom and Dad Grieve Differently

The death of a child is a devastating loss for anyone; it is even more difficult for a marriage. For the marriage to survive, both partners need to work through their own grief while, at the same time, allowing space for the other to grieve. If the partners blame themselves or the other for the loss, grief becomes not only isolating but conflicted.

Other complications surrounding the death—an accident, illness, or suicide—can make it even more difficult for the couple to find compassion for one another. Some limited research and plenty of anecdotal evidence tells us that many couples—perhaps as many as 80 percent—separate after the death of a child. The pain of being together is too much to bear.

Active vs. Quiet Grief

My grief was active. I threw myself into planning the ceremonies, establishing communication for his friends, and setting up a charitable fund. Slowly, I sorted through his room, finding treasures hidden there. I collected the records from his accident. Eventually I walked to the place of the accident and sat on my nearby mourning bench.

Matt’s grief was a solitary, silent, pervasive sadness. He didn’t want to talk; he couldn’t. The grief was overwhelming. When I stopped moving, I could find him there, and we could hold each other in the shared love and profound loss of our son. In that silent embrace, we were held within the strength of our marriage, in everything that had gone before, to be with the utterly unknown.

Our Own Rituals

Over the next months, we continued to create rituals, gathering with friends and scattering Timmy’s ashes in various places: Kauai at his six-month anniversary, the Oregon coast for his one-year anniversary, and the ginkgo tree planted for him at the Frei University in Berlin the following year. Each time, we tapped into new feelings of grief expressed through poems and songs that spoke to us in the moment. Tyler and Cassedy were intimate partners in our grief. They reflected aspects of each of us in their feelings and had their own grieving process as well.

Timmy’s friends also continued to gather and included us in their own rituals and remembrances as they finished college, took jobs, and moved on with their lives. Tyler and Cassedy have both married, developed careers, and have children of their own. New life helps heal the loss.

Staying Connected

From spending time with Timmy in Santa Cruz, we eventually found a new home for ourselves not far from the little house where Timmy lived his last days. We walk often past the bluff where we had his paddle out and down the hill where he took his last fall. We embrace his memory, the joy and zest for life he exuded. I have a deep trust that Timmy continues in some way on his own unique journey.

For Matt it is harder. As we walk together, we each continue our integration of Timmy’s life and death in our own ways. What neither of us could possibly bear alone, we could bear together. The marriage that Matt and I created painstakingly over the years had become a strength, a third body, that could hold both of us when we had nothing left to give.


Often, in offering condolences, people would say, “I can’t imagine.” And of course, they can’t and hopefully will never have to. But what do we know about our own emotional (sadness, anger, guilt) and psychological (gratitude, resentment, blame) reactions to loss and how they might play out in our relationship?

  • What do I know about how I grieve? What do I need from my partner to allow myself to grieve?
  • What do I know about how my partner grieves? What might my partner need from me in grief?
  • How are our needs in deep loss different?
  • What are my beliefs about death and after-life? How do my beliefs impact my grief process?

Excerpted from Marriage Unveiled: The Promise, Passion, and Pitfalls of Imperfectly Ever After by Sherry Cassedy. Learn more at

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Sherry Cassedy

Sherry Cassedy has practiced law and mediation for 29 years and currently has a mediation and private judging practice in Palo Alto, CA ( Ms. Cassedy has also served as an adjunct faculty member at Sofia University (formerly the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology), and in the Religious Studies Department at Santa Clara University. Ms. Cassedy, MA, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, and Certificate in Spiritual Guidance, offers spiritual guidance, yoga instruction and seasonal retreats on spiritual topics. Sherry is a passionate student of yoga philosophy and other spiritual teachings, which she incorporates into her yin and restorative yoga classes. She is also a licensed minister and works with couples in preparing and officiating marriage ceremonies. Sherry has been married to Matthew Sullivan, PhD for almost 35 years and they have three children, Tyler Sullivan, Cassedy Sullivan and Timothy Sullivan (Deceased 2010). Sherry lives in Santa Cruz, CA where she teaches and writes.

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