Suffering through a tragedy will change you in ways you can scarcely imagine. It’s often a matter of choice as to whether those changes will be positive or negative. Not always, but often.

 I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I heard a radio clip about a woman named Karen Robards, whose son David was born with Down Syndrome. That would be a blow to any parent, and Karen and her husband, Tom, were devastated. In time, though, they founded a special education center near their home in New York City. The center has helped hundreds of students and their families. Karen considers her experiences with children at the center and with her own son to have been an incredible journey.

The Robards’ story was told by writer Andrew Solomon on NPR’s popular TED Radio Hour, in a show about personal identity. Solomon is the author of a book called Far from the Tree, which explores how our children’s identities shape our own. You can listen to his part of the radio program here: 

With David’s birth, Karen’s identity suddenly became that of a parent with a Down Syndrome child. After Reid’s accident, my identity became that of grieving mother. Neither of us would have chosen to play such roles.

But listen to what Karen said when Solomon asked her what she would do if she could make David’s Down Syndrome magically disappear. She would absolutely do it, she replied, so his life would be easier. But she added, “I never would have believed 23 years ago when he was born that I could come to such a point—but it’s made me so much better and so much kinder and so much more purposeful in my whole life that speaking for myself I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world.”

I understand what Karen means. Without losing Reid, I don’t think I would have made learning how to serve others the centerpiece of my life. I don’t know that I would have set out on a spiritual journey that I hope has made me kinder, more open-hearted, more aware of the suffering in the world, and less frightened of looking that suffering fully in the face.

I doubt that I’ll ever get to the point where I consider our loss of Reid to have been a good thing. But slowly I’m seeing how the tempest of our tragedy includes not a silver lining—nothing so gorgeous—but a narrow, tarnished tunnel from which I am slowly emerging, a better person for having fought my way through.

 You can read about the education center started by Karen and Tom Robards at


AuthorJan DeBlieu