Christmas – A Celebration of Grace

The last thing I wanted to think about on the morning of Christmas Eve was death. Yet there I was, driving into the city to run an errand, tears streaming down my face, missing my mom. Resisting the reality that her earthly death had come 3 years before. In recent weeks I’d watched, through social media, the cousin of my nephew spend last days with her father before he passed through this life completely. She’d shared an authentic and vulnerable account of their last moments with him. Although she and I have never physically met, she quickly became one of my teachers on this earth because of her willingness to let her life happen in fullness.   I recalled dialogue with a dear friend just a week ago as she’d told me about her father’s recent end-of-days, hearing in her voice all the strength she’d had to muster just to experience the end of his life with grace and courage. On my heart had weighed the fresh Christmas grief of my own cousins who’d bid farewell to their mother, my aunt, just months earlier. I wanted to feel carefree and content during that drive, to just sing along with the Christmas carols blaring through my speakers.

Instead, grace, mercy, and love wanted to tap me on the shoulder in the form of memories to be cherished, even used to soften this otherwise harsh world.

Yes, sometimes grief is just a not-so-gentle reminder that we’ve given and received grace, mercy, and love in our lives. I decided to let the tears flow, stop resisting, and be mindful of what was placed in my mind on this morning. My emotional strain quickly gave way to warm memories of my mother and how excited she would be around Christmas – mostly because she loved giving to others through the cakes and pies she baked, the joy in the eyes of any children who visited, enamored by all the decorations that donned her home, and the joy in her own eyes when she got to be near her kids and grandkids.  I remembered the many times my mom had offered me her grace, her mercy, and her love.  When I leaned into this rush of feelings welling up inside me, the tears flowed more easily and they were met with gratitude and a smile as I realized I had been given a choice in how to check in with my soul’s deepest movements.  My mom and Christ had a lot in common. They both knew how to move me from a painful place to a much better space.

The cycle of life and death is still a mystery at times. Yet, somehow on Christmas, we choose to accept the most miraculous of lives in Christ’s birth and the most egregious of deaths in His crucifixion. For the Christian faith, it is a celebration. Seems odd, really. We celebrate a day that was so alarming and confusing for a young, virgin girl in the Middle East and then celebrate a day that was, no doubt, full of grief for that same woman as she witnessed the loss of her son on earth years later. The story tells us everything turned out for the best. And what I love about that story is that the main character, Christ, would completely understand my tears on this Christmas Eve morning. Then, He would shift effortlessly with me into celebrating the grace, mercy, and love that my own husband and son give me every day.

Grief requires us to be a vessel for its voice.

Allowing it to be spoken, and felt, washes clean the space through which the best of ourselves can be heard. The grace, mercy, and love others have given me is the best of myself. The story of my Christmas Eve started in sorrow and tears.  Remembering that this holiday is a celebration of grace eased my sorrow, making way for His will to be done.  On Christmas, I get to celebrate the best in me, the Christ in me. Happy Birthday, Christ. Thanks for using Your birthday as my reminder and celebration of grace.

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Christmas – A Celebration of Grace

The last thing I wanted to think about on the morning of Christmas Eve was death. Yet there I was, driving into the city to run an errand, tears streaming down my face, missing my mom. Resisting the reality that her earthly death had come 3 years before. In recent weeks I’d watched, through social media, the cousin of my nephew spend last days with her father before he passed through this life completely. She’d shared an authentic and vulnerable account of their last moments with him. Although she and I have never physically met, she quickly became one of my teachers on this earth because of her willingness to let her life happen in fullness.   I recalled dialogue with a dear friend just a week ago as she’d told me about her father’s recent end-of-days, hearing in her voice all the strength she’d had to muster just to experience the end of his life with grace and courage. On my heart had weighed the fresh Christmas grief of my own cousins who’d bid farewell to their mother, my aunt, just months earlier. I wanted to feel carefree and content during that drive, to just sing along with the Christmas carols blaring through my speakers.

Instead, grace, mercy, and love wanted to tap me on the shoulder in the form of memories to be cherished, even used to soften this otherwise harsh world.

Yes, sometimes grief is just a not-so-gentle reminder that we’ve given and received grace, mercy, and love in our lives. I decided to let the tears flow, stop resisting, and be mindful of what was placed in my mind on this morning. My emotional strain quickly gave way to warm memories of my mother and how excited she would be around Christmas – mostly because she loved giving to others through the cakes and pies she baked, the joy in the eyes of any children who visited, enamored by all the decorations that donned her home, and the joy in her own eyes when she got to be near her kids and grandkids.  I remembered the many times my mom had offered me her grace, her mercy, and her love.  When I leaned into this rush of feelings welling up inside me, the tears flowed more easily and they were met with gratitude and a smile as I realized I had been given a choice in how to check in with my soul’s deepest movements.  My mom and Christ had a lot in common. They both knew how to move me from a painful place to a much better place.

The cycle of life and death is still a mystery at times. Yet, somehow on Christmas, we choose to accept the most miraculous of lives in Christ’s birth and the most egregious of deaths in His crucifixion. For the Christian faith, it is a celebration. Seems odd, really. We celebrate a day that was so alarming and confusing for a young, virgin girl in the Middle East and then celebrate a day that was, no doubt, full of grief for that same woman as she witnessed the loss of her son on earth years later. The story tells us everything turned out for the best. And what I love about that story is that the main character, Christ, would completely understand my tears on this Christmas Eve morning. Then, He would shift effortlessly with me into celebrating the grace, mercy, and love that my own husband and son give me every day.

Grief requires us to be a vessel for its voice.

Allowing it to be spoken, and felt, washes clean the space through which the best of ourselves can be heard. The grace, mercy, and love others have given me is the best of my self. The story of my Christmas Eve started in sorrow and tears.  Remembering that this holiday is a celebration of grace eased my sorrow, making way for His will to be done.  On Christmas, I get to celebrate the best in me, the Christ in me. Happy Birthday, Christ. Thanks for using Your birthday as my reminder of grace.

 

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My Therapist Called Me a Weed

L. Chris Cannida, LPC

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published by L. Chris Cannida, MS, LPC – April 6, 2016

April is the Month of the Military Child.  The dandelion is the official flower of military children – representing their resilience in the midst of constant change and uncertainty.  In honor of the smallest, and strongest members of our military community, I am reposting this one.  Honored to have been compared to such a phenomenal group of people – military children.  

“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely” – C.G. Jung

My therapist asked me once if I considered myself a dandelion or an orchid. She went on to say she believed I was, of course, a dandelion.

My own therapist had dubbed me a weed.

She was brilliant at leaving me in the space of ambiguity, allowing me to resolve for myself exactly what she’d meant.  I was familiar with the metaphor and it was…

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Mindfulness – Hoax or Help?

 

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by L. Chris Cannida, LPC – January 27, 2016

Recently, I ran across an article that defined mindfulness simply as the exercise of paying attention to deliberate and slow breathing.   The article went on to dismiss mindfulness, given this minimized definition, as nothing more than a trend in the field of behavioral health. While diaphragmatic, or belly breathing, can be a result of or conduit to mindfulness, this definition did little to fully educate on the benefits of true mindfulness as an exercise in healthy living. Unfortunately, if this perception takes hold with the general public, we have stripped from them a wealth of information that can lead to life-changing benefits.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, describes mindfulness as a means of paying attention in a particular way, with purpose and without judgment.

Experts in the field of neuroscience have spent years studying the health benefits from the art (and science) of true mindfulness practice. Turns out, mindfulness involves a wide variety of mental and physiological exercises that positively affect not only our physical being, but also our social interactions, as well as improving our moods and cognitive function. There is now research being done on how teaching mindfulness exercises to students in school classrooms can enhance opportunities for learning.

Some benefits of mindfulness practice include:

  1. Increased mental focus and flexibility
  2. Improved working or short-term memory
  3. Strengthened immune system
  4. Decreased anxiety and depressed mood
  5. Physiological stress-reduction
  6. Psychological resilience
  7. Increases in relationship satisfaction

While I teach the aforementioned breathing techniques to nearly all of my clients as part of a strength-based, wellness portion to their psychotherapy, we also spend time learning many of the other exercises borrowed from the world of mindfulness practice. In doing so, we help them separate from painful ruminations that serve no positive purpose in their healing, empower them to manage their bodies and minds toward a stronger sense of self, and strengthen their physical selves in order to combat continued life stresses.

In recent years, I’ve even witnessed mindfulness practices being helpful to service members battling combat-fatigue and post-war/reintegration struggles. The simple exercise of learning more about how their body and brain interact toward creating a healthier and whole self gave them valuable tools in moving forward toward recovery from the most challenging of issues.

I encourage anyone reading this piece to explore the many ways mindfulness can bring benefit to your life. There is no shortage of legitimate, evidence-based information on the subject from which to draw. To help you get started on a daily dose of mindfulness in living, check out the following resources:

http://www.rickhanson.net

http://www.mindfullivingprograms.com

 

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The Mindfulness Tree

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written by chris cannida, 2015

According to a popular personality assessment, I possess a trait that causes me to nearly insist everything has meaning. Whether buying décor for my home, giving a gift, or writing a poem – without meaning as valued by me, what’s the point? Annoys me sometimes. Other times, it enriches my thought life and keeps me grounded. Years ago, I decided to use it for keeping my Christmas season meaningful, so I began mindfully decorating my tree. I wanted to remind myself of the story of sacrifice and gifting God presented by allowing his Spirit to be born in the form of a Son on earth – a way to offer atonement for our sinful nature.   Each year, as I unwrap the ornaments one by one, I keep my mind focused on how grand the love must be for a father to give his only child to undeserving others as a gesture of that love. I can only aspire to give so graciously. My own son tucked in the cleft of my maternal instinct, offering forgiveness and generosity is my next hope to model God’s perfection. I’ll never reach that level, so humbly I accept forgiveness for my failings and I take the opportunity to honor the gift of Christmas as I don my tree with remembrance.

Welcome to my mindfulness tree –

~ The red apples are hung first as I try to be courageous in addressing my own sinful nature over the years. Recalling the many times I accepted the apples of fear and shame in my own garden, I am thankful for God’s mercy.

~ Next come the red bows symbolizing the gift of that mercy, handed to me graciously, and at risk as God knew I might reject it on many occasion with my faithlessness and doubt. He gave it anyway.

~ The gold and red bulbs are hung, sometimes with me bearing shame all over again knowing the offerings in frankincense and myrrh that is my life’s work and purpose are humble, not nearly enough in return.

~ Tiny jingle bells come next, representing the commission to tell the news in word and action of how God loves us without condition, perhaps aching for us to know. If only we took the opportunity to remind each other throughout the year – “You do matter”.

~ Next, there are ornaments in the shape of musical instruments. These are most precious as I’ve collected them over the years, much as I’ve collected the gift of songs in my heart. When I was 12 years old, sitting on the picnic table in my family’s backyard, I believe God spoke especially to me when He said, “And I want you to sing. I’m giving you the music as a special gift. A way for you to talk with me anytime you need”.There were years where others tried to silence the music altogether, though just as I’ve been able to protect the ornaments shaped like harps and horns, God helped me protect the gifts He gave me.  Funny thing is, most of the years, this singer is silent as she dons the tree. Sometimes the most powerful moment is the breath between notes as the singer listens for the timing and tone God intends for her life.

~ Lastly come the ornaments collected over the years, each personalized with my own son’s name.  God saw fit to give His son, then gave me a son. I believe God has asked little in return.  And every single day of the year, I marvel at this most precious gifting, my child.  You see, I lost two birth children, one late in term and one a bit earlier.  I grieved a mother’s grief, though God saw fit to allow that despair for only a brief time before He graced me with something more precious than even the music.  My son is the joy of my days.  How could I not celebrate that as the best Christmas gift of all?

~ The star?  It goes without saying, doesn’t it?

Humanity has a way of stripping meaning if we let it, perhaps inadvertent. Though we must be mindful and purposeful in protecting the meaning of this seasonal celebration. So, it is my intent as I decorate my home for the birthday celebration.  Christmas may be when we wrap the present with our manmade ceremonies in traditional red and green. Easter is when we celebrate the death and rising, to usher in the unfolding of the gift.

Whether during the Christmas season, or any other time of year, I wish for you grounding in meaningful and mindful living.

Merry Christmas ~

Chris

 

 

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When Grief and Celebration Collide

This week is the celebration of Christmas for many in the world.  It’s also a week that, for some we call Gold Star families, will be cloaked in grief and loss.  Six American soldiers were killed by suicide bomb in Afghanistan this week. Christmas, 2015.  As I consider the magnitude of loss for them this time of year, I recall the first year my own grief and celebration collided.  Christmas, 2013. The first Christmas of my life without mom on earth.

She passed away on the first day of Spring that year. Oddly, I’m glad it was a day easily marked by the calendar. I didn’t want to forget the last time she was physically near. It’s a strange feeling – wanting to remember when your parent died. And yet, I quietly did the same when my father passed away. He died the day after my nephew’s birthday.  First day of Spring, a birthday, Christmas.  What do we do when grief collides with celebration?  Perhaps resilience is built on the ability to reconcile the two.

Knowing that we can remain resilient and grow in the midst of such a pain as grief is one of the ways we cope.

Being able to say to oneself, “I did it. I survived this.”, can be a remarkable comfort in times of seemingly insurmountable strife. For me, it is vital to have a mental stronghold to break my fall when I find myself grappling with painful emotion. Because of my work as a psychotherapist, I am constantly compartmentalizing my own hurts so I can keep my clients’ needs in the forefront. And the side effect of that is what knocks me off-balance at times. My own humanity will not allow comfortable denial of such a significant part of me – being on earth without my parents. But, the constant suppression of such sorrow in the midst of everyday living becomes difficult. So, my pain eventually finds its way to the surface, ofttimes at the strangest, most unexpected moments.

That’s what happened the December after my mother died when I walked into the seasonal Hickory Farms store and smelled the aroma of smoked sausage and cheese.  That day, my grief and my celebration collided.  I found myself quickly scurrying from the store. Several weeks earlier, my son had mentioned that he missed getting his treat package full of sausage and cheese from Nana this year. He’d known the joy of that gift for the past 18 years. Until that year, 2013. His words were the first tug at the hem of my pain and so when I entered the store it was only a matter of seconds before my grief, which I thought was safely packed away inside my soul – where I keep all things painful – would emerge to grip me unmercifully. The salesperson, thankfully, was not one to follow me through every square inch of my stroll through the store. This allowed me a private moment to notice what was swelling inside me. And when my eyes began to sting with tears, I swiftly made my way out the door. Gratefully, I am able to normalize these moments for myself. So I embraced the sweet awareness that being nudged closer to memories of my mom is a blessing. My moment of sorrow turned into a peaceful presence. It felt as though she was right there with me, teasing me a bit for being so silly. Then, gently reminding me that over the years she’d missed her parents, too. I can hear her now, in her southern drawl, “I miss my mama and daddy everyday. You’re supposed to miss your parents.” My mother was the first person in my life to teach me that being tolerant of feelings was a normal part of growing, and in that, growth is lifelong.

Today, I realize that perhaps it’s more about me and my growth than the fact that my parents are gone. Maybe I’m wanting to mark days of my life that forever change me – days that I believe are meant to help me grow and more surely know my purpose on this earth. It’s like that old practice of taking a pencil to mark the height of your child against a door frame – so that over the years the milestones can be noted. Maybe the point of enduring the stresses of life is to see and celebrate the growth. Perhaps someone in our lives is watching and searching for a clue of how to get through tougher times. We are a concrete being. We need proof that all is eventually okay – that we are going to be okay. We need to know that our presence here is noted as important and that those steps we take to survive are not taken in vain.

I’m not really confident I know my importance here in this life. And let’s face it, without our parents here to validate us, that knowing is sometimes even more out of reach. I do know I want to pass on to my own child the keys to finding his purpose. I want him to embrace grief and quickly turn it into moments of warm memories that nudge him into a more peaceful presence, without being burdened by sadness and sorrow. I want him to know that regardless of what he feels in any given moment, those moments are a bridge to better times in which he will feel stronger and sure that he will see better days. I want him to feel validated and recognize his own strength.

Someday I’ll be sending my son and his family Christmas gift packages of sausage and cheese. Until then, I hope I’m able to teach him about turning sorrow into peace. And that with or without me and his dad around for validation, he is significant and needed on this earth. I want him to use his faith in God, embedded in his soul by the reflection of his worth he finds when he sees my face – his mother. That’s a lofty task – to assure a child of their worth. It’s a life’s work. My mom certainly did a good job of it. Her children were the center of her purpose. I’m daunted by the thought of being for my son what she was for me.  I look forward to celebrating his launch into life while making a safe space for my grief to breathe.  Each year since her passing, I just close my eyes and remember getting that package from mom each holiday season. Smoked sausage and cheese – and the steadfast love of my mother. Dear Mom, wish you were here. Grateful for all the times you were.

As I reflect on the bittersweet mixture of grief and celebration, I wish for those whose grief has the sting of newness a peace and strength to remain resilient. Whether Gold Star families or others, remain encouraged that your grief is also a celebration of the love you held for another.

If your grief has collided with holiday celebrations this year, please consider reaching out for support –

www.griefshare.org

www.griefnet.org (Grace Happens)

www.veterancrisisline.net or 1-800-273-8255

www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or 1-800-273-8255

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Losing Shame for Christmas

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written by chris cannida, 2015

The appointment book for my private practice is starting to fill up – for one reason.  The holiday season begins.  Triggered for many are painful memories and unfulfilled wishes for bonding and companionship.  When I went to the search engine and typed “coping with the holidays” the number of hits that surfaced was 315,000,000.  Over 300 million hits for coping.  There is no shortage of information written about coping with the holiday season.  That’s because there’s no shortage of people feeling extra stress this time of year.  Yet many people will cower in the darkness of an emotional corner before reaching out for support.

This highlights one of the primary stresses we face – feeling isolated.

No one is actually so alone in feeling depressed, angry, and generally stressed during this time of year.  Yet, because there is stigma attached to having these feelings, the canvas of our emotions is painted with a large coat of shame.  Shame is isolating.  The messages we receive from the media or well-intentioned friends, can add to that shame by making us feel less than because we aren’t filled with joy and holiday spirit. It causes us to ask “What’s wrong with me?”  If life has unfolded into us having no family or friends to offer words of encouragement, that loneliness compounds our belief that we are inherently bad.

So, the first step in coping is to battle against the idea that no one else would understand how you feel.  It’s not true.  Brene’ Brown reminds us that shame cannot survive empathy.  Disclosure can decrease shame.  You are definitely not alone.  Even making the simple comment “this time of year is always a bit rough for me” may bring words of empathy from others.

Although the following list of other ways to cope with holiday stress is not extensive, it includes tips that people have reported to me as helpful.  I use most of them myself, whether during the holidays or year-round.  I’m hoping you find them useful.  And I wish you a shame-free holiday.

* Talk to someone.  It helps.  The “chemistry” of our emotions must finish itself once started, and somehow find release.  We are chemical beings and there are specific chemical reactions that occur in the creation of our thoughts and emotions.  Once we begin a chain of thoughts that then lead to negative emotions, that chain reaction will run its course to an end.  How you cope along the way does determine 1) if the chain will be long and seemingly unending, and 2) if the end of that chain is devastating and destructive or if, somehow, a light for hope and new beginnings exists.  Who you talk to can make a difference.  If you find yourself with no one earning your trust right now, choose a professional, like a counselor.  If you’re employed and have health insurance, see if your plan offers employee assistance programs where some of your counseling sessions would be free. If money is an issue in seeking professional support, perhaps you can find a church and talk to a clergyman.  Pastors, preachers, priests, and chaplains – they’ll listen.  Some are quite gifted in caring for the human spirit.  If the idea of donning a church step doesn’t fit you, there may be a hospital in your area offering support groups or classes this time of year.

Most importantly, if your shame has convinced you that you’re not worth the moments it takes someone to care for you, freeze right now, while reading this, yell STOP and read these next words with the intent to believe them – it’s just not true

Even if the dark cloud of shame has covered up any self-worth, let someone help you clear the sky of your thoughts so you can realize your worth.

* Do something. Anything, really. I’ve discovered that when I feel a lack of worth or purpose, my purpose can be found in doing even the smallest act. Like now, writing this blog and trying to help someone with my own experience. Even if I never know it’s actually helped, for the minutes it takes to write it down, I’m lifted out of a darker state of mind. Volunteering in the community, calling to check on a friend – anything to lift yourself out of these moments that weigh you down.  Even if the “something” that you do is just for yourself (cleaning that long-neglected closet, reading a book), that behavior can change the course of your entire day.

Sometimes our purpose is to be there for ourselves.

It may be hard to believe, but there are times when our most important worth is in saving ourselves. Try not to get caught up in wondering the why of it all.  Just be, do, and survive.

* Taking a walk –  My own teenage son told me once that he’d discovered how relaxing a long walk can be.  He puts on his headphones, walks several miles, and says he can just tune out his stresses by listening to music.  Even if remedies or solutions to your stress cannot be easily solved, walking is a way to manage that chemistry churning inside you while you carry the stress over a period of time.  Bundle up if it’s cold outside, or hit the local mall and just walk, walk, walk.  Slow or fast, doesn’t matter.  Think, or don’t think.  There is scientific evidence that walking, or any type of exercise, can improve our overall health.

* Random acts of kindness can do amazing things for the human spirit.  It doesn’t have to involve money or even lots of time.  If the person working the drive-through window at your local coffee shop has a gentle or uplifting tone of voice or pleasant demeanor – absorb that – pay attention to how their own efforts at pleasantness can ease your angst even just a bit and thaw out your frozen soul for that brief moment.  And then mention that to them.  I periodically offer a heartfelt “thank you” to a clerk in the store if I’m having a rough day – just a simple ‘thank you’ for being kind.  It reminds me that it’s possible to find and feel goodness in the midst of all the badness, or madness in the world.

* Prayer – Not your thing?  Then, skip this part and move on.  But, if it is something you’ve considered in the past, consider it now.  Not sure how to pray?  Not a worry.  It’s easy.  Go on that long walk I suggested (or sit comfortably somewhere) – and just quietly talk to God, your Higher Power, that Being to whom you would choose to pray.  Ask questions, scream, cry, shake your fist, tell a joke, or even just silently pay attention to your own heartbeat or the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe.   The power of prayer (or some call it meditation or mindfulness) is in its intention.  If it’s your intention to calm yourself by turning inward (or ‘upward’ to a deity), it can have the same beneficial effect.

The kind of stress we feel deep inside, the kind that attacks our sense of well-being, can be temporary and eventually managed with success.  If you find yourself angry or even slightly irritated, rather than hopeful, at the idea that you can feel better, this sensation alone can be a sign that it’s time to reach out and ask for support.  Until then, it’s okay, even necessary, to practice self-compassion – not only during the holiday season, but all year long.

Give yourself the gift of self-compassion and lose your shame for Christmas this year.

http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

https://www.veteranscrisisline.net 

This information is not intended to serve as a substitute for scheduled, face-to-face medical treatment.  If you are experiencing thoughts that may create a medical emergency, please seek help from your physician or contact your local emergency room.

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