How Mary Tyler Moore came to terms with losing her son in a tragic accident

Mary Tyler Moore was well known for her warm and sunny disposition - but that cheerful smile hid personal heartbreak and tragedy. The actress, who died on Wednesday at the age of 80, overcame great adversity behind closed doors, from her two divorces, to her struggle with alcoholism and diabetes. But perhaps the biggest challenge she faced was dealing with the loss of her only child.

Son Richie was born to Mary and her first husband, Richard Meeker. Mary and Richard had only been married six weeks when she discovered she was pregnant, aged just 18. Richie was born on July 3, 1956 – but when the little boy was five-years-old, his parents divorced, with Mary going on to marry Grant Tinker six months later. (Her marriage to Grant came to an end in 1981.)

TAP FOR GALLERY Mary Tyler Moore pictured with son Richard in 1968.

In her 1995 memoir, After All, Mary candidly wrote: "There is no question about it. By the time Richie was five, I had already let him down. When he needed me the most, I was busier and more self-concerned than I had been when he was an impressionable infant."

STARS PAY TRIBUTE TO MARY TYLER MOORE

The relationship between mother and son soon became strained, and in 1971, Richie moved to California with his father. According to People, Richie thrived while living with his dad and when Richard was moved out of town for work, he persuaded his parents to let his remain in Fresno on his own to complete school. Sadly, however, he soon fell victim to drugs.

Mary and her second husband, Grant Tinker.

With help from his parents, Richie managed to turn his life around, moving back in with his mother and graduating from high school. But, in 1980, Mary received the phone call that would change her life forever.

"On Oct. 15, 1980, at 5am, the phone awakened me," she wrote. "It was Grant. 'If you're standing, you should sit down… It's Richie. He's dead."

Richie was just 24 at the time. An avid gun collector, he was toying with a gun called the 'Snake Charmer' in his bedroom when it went off. An official investigation by the Coroner's Office later confirmed the death was an accident.

Mary was married to Robert Levine from 1983 until her death.

In her memoir, Mary recalled the heartbreak of spreading her son's ashes into the Owen River. "The water was clear and high as I knelt over it," she wrote. "I opened the container and emptied it out into the rushing water. What was meant to be a prayer became an outraged demand. 'You take care of him,' I screamed at the sky."

With the help of therapy, Mary was able to come to terms with her tragic loss, and she went on to find lasting love with Robert Levine. Her beloved husband was by her side when she died on Wednesday.

"Today, beloved icon, Mary Tyler Moore, passed away at the age of 80 in the company of her loving husband of over 33 years, Dr. S. Robert Levine. A ground-breaking actress, producer and passionate advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Mary will be remember as a fearless visionary who turned the world on with her smile," her spokesperson said.

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