Who cares: a conversation on grief, communication, and community

  • Published
  • By Emily Peacock

As an intensive care unit chaplain at Regions Hospital’s level 1 trauma center in St. Paul, Minnesota, Conner Simms witnessed both inexplainable miracles and unimaginable losses. And while it was his job to comfort those suffering, patient or family member, Simms admits bringing the weight of others’ grief home with him was practically unavoidable.

“It’s impossible to leave something on the shelf and go to another place pretending like nothing’s wrong,” Simms said. “If you don’t find a constructive way to process that heaviness, even if it’s not your weight to bear, you risk the chance of snapping on those who are trying to help.” 

Luckily for Simms, he and his wife, Mayme, had a system in place to avoid just that.

“Very early on, we became good at asking ‘what do you need from me right now?’” said Simms. “Historically, my default was to try and fix whatever was bothering her, but I learned that the best way I could support her in that moment was to be exactly what she needed – not what I thought she needed. Because at the end of the day, people just want to be heard.”

Ultimately, Mayme and Conner helped each other become better listeners, which in turn, made Conner a better ICU chaplain.

At Regions, Simms sat with families struggling with the question “Why? Why my loved one, why this way, why so soon?” And while he didn’t have the answers they were looking for, he showed up every day to make sure those suffering would receive whatever they needed from him in that moment – whether in the form of a shoulder to cry on, a sounding board, or simply some silent company.

After a few years as an ICU and palliative care Chaplain, Simms began to wonder if there was more he could do with the skills he’d developed. At the same time, he and Mayme were expecting a baby girl.

“I started to wonder ‘what kind of world will my daughter grow up in?’ and ‘what was I doing to shape that world?’” said Simms. “When I thought about impact, I thought about my grandfathers who were both veterans. I thought of the Gold Star family who lived across the street from me.”

“I did my research, made a few calls, and direct commissioned in the U.S. Air Force Reserve as a chaplain in 2018.”

Currently, Simms serves as a member of Space Base Delta 1’s Guardian Resiliency Team as a Religious Support Team Component. Referred to as GRT (pronounced “grit”), Simms joins a holistic health integrator, physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning coach, and licensed mental health specialist to provide Space Force Guardians, and the Airmen who support them, with a holistic approach to health and wellness.

“As a member of the GRT, I provide support, confidential and privileged communication, spiritual counseling, and, ultimately, help for those who don’t know where to go,” said Simms.

When asked what age demographic he sees the most walk through the SBD1 chapel, Simms talked about those just beginning their military career.  

“When it comes to counseling, I see younger Guardians and Airmen the most,” said Simms. “They’re on their own – some for the first time. They’re away from family, and for a lot of these young men and women, they’re not at liberty to discuss what they do on a daily basis.”

While Simms says communicating with loved ones is key to feeling grounded, he says not being able to talk about the very thing that’s upsetting you can leave you feeling isolated and alone.

And no one can sympathize with this more than Simms. 

“Mayme and our six-year-old daughter [soon to be seven, Simms adds] are back in Minneapolis as I serve out my Individual Mobilization Augmentee duties here in Colorado,” explained Simms. “In the six months I’ve been here I’ve seen them three times, and I’m grateful for that.  Many service members may not see their families at all in a year.”

“While I’m grateful for the visits and the years we’ve shared together, I can’t help but feel like I’m missing precious time with my girls.”

But rather than sit in his grief, Simms follows the advice he would give to any Guardian or Airman trying to overcome that loneliness. 

“Developing a routine of calling the people who love you is crucial to remaining grounded,” suggested Simms. “Even if you can’t talk about work, put in the effort and reach out. Those who truly care about you will understand and won’t try to pry.”

Next, Simms says to stay disciplined and set boundaries.

“When you’re a geo-bachelor without many responsibilities outside of work, it’s easy to submerse yourself in work or stay up late every night playing video games. Either way, you have a high chance of burning yourself out. Take care of yourself, exercise regularly, set boundaries at work, and get a good night’s sleep.”

Finally, Simms recommends building your community with people who share common interests with you. 

“I’ve found my support system through work and through a local faith community,” said Simms. “It won’t replace your family back home, but it’ll help give you a sense of purpose and belonging.”

And when all else fails, Simms says his door at the SBD1 chapel is always open for those who need someone to talk to – or for whatever they need in that moment.