A Savior Who Suffers with Me

“…a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” This prophetic description of our Lord Jesus found in Isaiah 53 is one I’ve long been familiar with. However, I never stopped to truly ponder what it means that our Lord is acquainted with grief until that much unwelcome acquaintance made its way into my own life.

On Grief

I have recently experienced the most painful event in my life thus far, and the prospect of writing about a part of this ongoing journey through grief is daunting. In the midst of my own pain, I recognize the pain and suffering that countless others have experienced and continue to experience. I also understand that there are a myriad of responses and feelings that can arise when one encounters tragedy. I have had moments where my mind has begun an unseemly attempt to rank my own experience among other instances of suffering I have seen or heard of in another person's life. Surely their pain is much greater than my own, or vice versa. Yet I continue to remind myself that such an attempt at comparison has no merit. The Lord allows for each of us to encounter suffering in different ways. What matters most is our response to painful events and whether we allow them to draw us nearer to Him and to those we love or we allow them to do damage to our relationships and our faith.

As I write this, I in no way pretend to be an expert on grief or tragedy, nor am I so bold as to suggest that I understand how others have felt in the midst of dealing with their own pain. My desire is simply to expound on my own experience in the hope that it may bring some comfort to someone else at a time when it is needed. As C.S. Lewis's stepson Douglas Gresham wrote in the introduction to Lewis's book, A Grief Observed, "Anything entitled 'Grief Observed' would have to be so general and nonspecific as to be academic in its approach and thus of little use to anyone approaching or experiencing bereavement. This book, on the other hand, is a stark recounting of one man’s studied attempts to come to grips with and in the end defeat the emotional paralysis of the most shattering grief of his life."

In that same way, I seek to recount my own journey thus far.

Light in the Darkness

In June of 2021 at the 20-week ultrasound of our 3rd child, my wife Gisel and I were told by our doctor that she saw some abnormalities in our baby's heart. She urged us to not be overly alarmed, but that further inspection would be needed at the University of Iowa Hospital. This obviously came as a shock to us both, and what followed was many tears and several anxiety-filled doctor appointments. After a series of ultrasounds and an echocardiogram, our little girl was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect known as Truncus Arteriosus Type 1.

The primary feature of this condition is a malformation of the main arteries leaving the heart which requires surgical correction that most commonly takes place days to weeks after birth. Furthermore, we were informed that even after a successful surgical correction, our daughter would require multiple follow-up surgeries as she grew in order to replace the artificial conduit used in the repair. This condition would also come with regular cardiology checkups for her entire life. Over the course of the next few weeks and months, Gisel and I were comforted in the assurance of our medical team that although this was a very serious condition, the outlook for our baby through the initial surgery and beyond was good.

As we continued to grapple with this, we were humbled by continuous messages of support and prayer. We were informed of believers all over the globe (that we have never met and will most likely never meet this side of eternity) that were fervently praying for us and our daughter. As I look back, I think that I can identify this period of time as one of the first moments I truly felt what could only be described as a supernatural peace. This was the first time that I personally felt the words of Psalm 34:18, "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit."

This in no way meant that neither my wife nor I felt any more worry or anxiety about our situation or that we never questioned why the Lord saw fit to allow our baby to be knit together in such a way. Those feelings continued to arise, and the worry lingered on in my mind. However, a common refrain for both Gisel and I was that this news did not take God by surprise. This baby was and always had been in His care. What safer and more secure place is there to be after all? When a sudden hardship shakes us awake to the reality of a broken world, it ought to bring us back to the feet of the One who has come to fix that which is broken and shine light in the darkness.


In the midst of all this bad news, a further comfort came in the form of genetic testing results that determined that an underlying genetic condition which could often coincide with our daughter's specific heart defect was not present. I distinctly remember the relief and joy that I felt the moment we heard these results. My heart was filled with gratitude towards God as this was an outcome for which we had so fervently prayed. I said to myself, my wife, my friends, and my family, "I never want to forget this moment of God's goodness to my family."

How often do the difficulties in our lives blind us to the many instances of the Lord's blessing? I knew that was certainly the case for me, and at that moment I saw a clear answer to my prayers and a clear blessing from God. My desire was to be able to remember this moment of goodness when moments in my future may push me to doubt the goodness of God. Little did I know how much that conviction would be put to the test.

We were approaching our daughter's due date. A plan had been set with the OB team, the neonatologists, the cardiologists, and the surgeons. We had a date for the c-section: October 25th. Things were coming together, and the few but frequent remaining check-ups were scheduled. This particular checkup on September 23rd was in the early morning. We didn't want to wake our two girls up that early for the hour-and-a-half drive to Iowa City, and I didn't want Gisel to drive alone, so we decided to go up the night before. That evening, we had dinner at a little cafe that Gisel and I had discovered during prior visits and checked into a nearby hotel. We overslept a bit on the morning of the appointment, but fortunately, the hotel was only about a four-minute drive to the hospital. Gisel rushed out the door and I stayed with our girls as they were not allowed to come to the appointment.

A little while later, Gisel FaceTimed me, and I will never forget the moment I answered that call. As soon as I saw the pain and anguish on her face, I knew. What more could be wrong that would cause her to be in such a state? She was finally able to get the words out, "She's gone. They can't find her heartbeat." Disbelief, denial, and a myriad of other thoughts and feelings flooded my mind: "surely there's a mistake, this isn't happening, haven't we gone through enough already?" I took no comfort in the consideration of God's eternal purpose at this point. There was only a sudden stab in the heart, and what felt like the merciless ripping away of our child before we even got to meet her.

A Savior who Suffers with Me

I can't begin to unpack the sorrow, the grief, the pain, the anxiety, the anger, the totality of the emotions that we felt over the next days. A scheduled delivery was made the day after we were told our baby had died. I don't remember how many times I begged the Lord for a miracle. That he might choose to show his power by breathing life back into our child, or perhaps the doctors would find out that this was all a terrible mistake when we went to deliver her. I am reminded of Jesus in Gethsemane when he cried out to the Father in his anguish, "Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me." Our Lord knows this pain. He understands what it's like to see what's coming and to beg an omnipotent God to change that reality.

Jesus knew the Father had the power; that's why He asked. I knew God could perform a miracle, that's why I begged Him to do so. But what I quoted above is not the entirety of what Jesus prayed. He finishes his anguished request with "yet not what I will, but what You will." God did not choose to perform the miracle I asked of Him; the death of our daughter was our heart-wrenching reality. Zoe Angela was born on September 26th; her body was still, and her soul had already departed this earth.

The path we started down on September 23rd of 2021 (and in many ways back in June of 2021) has been and continues to be the most difficult one that my wife and I have trod. It changes as time goes on, and the oft-used analogy of grief as a series of waves rings true for us. They were large, strong, and frequent at the beginning. As time goes on, perhaps they become less frequent or smaller. However, that doesn't mean they're ever gone or that a large wave won't come up and threaten to drown you when you least expect it.
I don't have a grand answer or step-by-step guide to dealing with grief. In fact, I don't believe such an answer exists, nor could it truly provide peace to anyone. When we are suffering, when we feel swallowed up by pain, where do we turn for comfort? Or when we see someone in the midst of their grief, what do we say? It can be awkward; maybe we even feel like it's best to just avoid the person altogether. Grief has no easy remedy or quick fix. There may be a time and place for someone to come alongside a person in pain and tell them it's not all so bad, to cheer up, and to think about the good in life. But more often, such words only serve as painful, isolating reminders that you feel alone in your sorrow and that there is no one who understands.

But no matter the suffering, there is someone who understands. There is someone who intimately knows the depths of your grief and pain because He himself has experienced the deepest depths of pain. Not only does He know how you feel, He cares deeply, and He enters into your grief with you. That someone is Jesus, the Savior who suffers with you.

In my own experience, comfort has come from others in a myriad of ways. Most commonly, these were gestures that didn't seek to help us feel less sad, but that acknowledged our pain and reminded us that we are not alone. Prayer, acts of service, encouragement from Scripture, small gifts, or messages reminding us that our dear Zoe is not forgotten, are some of the ways that friends and family helped to soften the pain in our hearts.

However, the greatest and most lasting source of comfort to my soul has been the knowledge that Jesus Christ knows my pain in a way that no one else ever will or can. Not only does he have knowledge of my feelings, but he grieves with me and cares about me on a personal and intimate level.

Hope through Sorrow

The pain and sorrow that we see and experience in our lives and in the lives of those around us is a reminder of the state of our world. The presence of sin in a fallen world means that pain is a daily occurrence, and grief will be a stranger to no one. As we read in Romans 5:12, "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—" Sin entered our world and through that, both physical and spiritual death. But as Christians, we know that this is not where the story ends. A few verses later, in Romans 5:17, we read "For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ." Christ has come, and through his death and resurrection, he has defeated death. And while we still deal with the consequences of sin in this life in the form of physical death, we can stand confident that Christ's work on the cross has provided us with a way to live with Him eternally.

It's for this reason that my wife and I grieve, but we do not grieve "...as others do who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13). In this life, we never got to hold our daughter while she was alive, but we remain confident that one day we will see our dear Zoe again, this time full of life and in the presence of our Savior. It is for this reason that we turn our eyes to heaven. As my wife often says as each day passes, we are "one day closer."

Nathan Phelan

Nathan graduated from Emmaus in 2013 and currently serves as the Director of Digital Marketing at the school. He and his wife, Gisel, both graduated from Emmaus and have 3 daughters, 2 here with them and 1 with her Savior.
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