Amber Carvaly of Mortician in the Kitchen: “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”

To me, being mindful can range anywhere from being completely present in one’s body so that you are able to feel and perceive everything around you, to having the kind of presence and awareness that allows you to transfer that onto another person. Mindfulness as a funeral director often came in the form of a […]

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To me, being mindful can range anywhere from being completely present in one’s body so that you are able to feel and perceive everything around you, to having the kind of presence and awareness that allows you to transfer that onto another person. Mindfulness as a funeral director often came in the form of a very elastic empathy where I had to meet my clients where they were at emotionally and find a way to guide them through their feelings.

As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amber Carvaly.

Amber Carvaly is a licensed funeral director and has been featured in articles for her work in the funeral industry. Amber believes that death is a shared experience and that by taking a more active role in the death and dying process that we are better able to alleviate not just our death anxiety but find more peace and joy in our daily life. Amber now takes the same ideas of being mindful about death to the kitchen with her site Mortician in the Kitchen where she creates vegan recipes and shares insight on how cooking can help manage our grief and anxiety.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Ichose to pursue funeral directing during a time not unlike what we are experiencing now. It was during the financial crisis of 2008 and I was laid-off at my job at a homeless shelter, as we had lost a majority of our funding. I was incredibly scared and had no idea what to do but knew that I wanted to do something that would provide me the opportunity to care for those during a difficult time in their life.

I have now been a licensed funeral director for 7 years. I co-founded and ran Undertaking LA, a mortuary in Los Angeles that believes that one of the best ways to process a death is to be a more active participant in the funeral process. This can include washing and dressing the body, doing the make-up and hair, helping to fill the grave in a burial, or simply witnessing the cremation.

I saw firsthand how important it was to provide activities that helped us subconsciously process our grief and wanted to take those hands-on activities and translate them into our everyday life and realized that cooking was a great way to blend our “idle hands” with self-care. Mindful cooking is a wonderful way to stimulate creativity and provide a space for meditation.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I have had some of the most beautiful and intimate moments I think a human can possibly ever share with others and I am thankful every day for it. One story that is always at the forefront of my mind is when my friend Marea Balvaneda died. Even though it’s been years now since I have had the privilege of seeing her I can still hear her infectious laughter. When Marea died I reached out to her sisters and explained what I knew would sound completely crazy, that they should be the ones to dress her for her funeral. Marea was the eldest and this was their final chance to love and care for her the way she had for them as they grew up. In Judaism washing and dressing the dead is referred to as the only act of kindness that can never be repaid, and therefore an ultimate act of love. Together we dressed Marea for her funeral, and I got to watch her sisters share one last humorous sibling bicker over where the barrettes should be placed in her hair or who should apply her lipstick. These are simple rituals we take for granted but grooming as an act of love is something so ingrained, that we see it even in animals. I believe whole-heartedly in the idea that these little rituals are what connect us, which is why I began to develop my cooking skills as a way to extend these moments into what we refer to in the funeral industry as “after-care”. We overlook the quotidian because of the very nature of it’s repetitiveness, but I think that asking people to slow down in the kitchen to make a meal to enjoy, rather than to just eat, like the difference between being alive and living, is imperative to our ability to manage not just our stress, but our death anxiety.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

I’m fairly certain I could rattle on for days on this topic. I have had the pleasure of working in such unique environments that have spanned from very warm and loving to so toxic I was throwing up before all of my shifts from stress. I think that the quickest way to poison the well is to think and act as if you don’t need anyone but yourself. It’s a perfect way to let all your coworkers know that you don’t value their work, time, or creative contribution. Even though the project I am working on now, Mortician in the Kitchen, is technically mine, the ideas, the recipes, and principles are absolute garbage without other people’s hard work. I would never have learned to cook if other people had not already spent their precious time and money creating recipes and posting them online for me to learn. I would never be able to refine my own recipes if I didn’t have others supporting my work and trying them out for themselves, and I would eventually burn out if I didn’t have other colleagues who were constantly lifting me up and finding way to incorporate my ideas and practices into their own. So to boil that down, never create a work environment in which your attitude is that people should be lucky to work with you, or tout that lot’s of other people would love to be here. I have had many jobs where I was told I was replaceable and that’s a great way to spend tons of money on retraining people, and a super great way to destroy a project, not just for everyone else, but ultimately for yourself as well.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton isone of my favorite books to read and covers the idea of silence and solitude, but also discusses how even within this solitude, community and connection to others is still paramount. I pretty much devoured it in one sitting and would frequently flip it open to a random page to read whatever I found on it and use it as a form of meditation and self-reflection. The title of the book is taken from a poem written in 1624 by the same name and it’s funny that 400 years later the message feels just as important as ever.

“No man is an island entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,

as well as if a promontory were,

as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;

any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know

for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

– MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions John Donne

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?

To me, being mindful can range anywhere from being completely present in one’s body so that you are able to feel and perceive everything around you, to having the kind of presence and awareness that allows you to transfer that onto another person. Mindfulness as a funeral director often came in the form of a very elastic empathy where I had to meet my clients where they were at emotionally and find a way to guide them through their feelings.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?

To me, mindfulness is the way we teach our bodies to let go of stress. So, let’s say you are in a state of pure panic and anxiety. Chances are your body is a complete wreck. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky is a must-read to understand how stress wreaks complete havoc on your body. Ever get those terrible bubble guts right before a stressful flight? That is your body’s stress response being triggered and your body is going “Uh-oh! Looks like something bad is about to happen fellas! Let’s get everything out of this body-yes I’m talking poop right now-so we can be as light as possible for a quick dash outta here!” Your body doesn’t know that you aren’t still being chased by lions. It just knows you’ve told it to get ready for a battle. Being present is the best way to combat those chemicals being released. People overlook the idea of mindfulness as silly spirituality but there is science and anthropological studies to back up how devastating stress can be and all the ways it leads to illness. The mildest problem is a headache and backache but there is evidence to suggest that stress, and even what you eat, can lead to many of our western diseases and that it can even cause genealogical damage exhibited in our grandchildren! This idea is referred to as epigenetics and I highly recommend everyone reading about it. They have even done studies on pregnant mothers who gave birth after national disasters and have shown how this affects the behavior of their children. I understand that I answered this question rather backward but I find it helpful to highlight how dangerous it is if we do not find a way to become more mindful and calm in our lives, it is not just a matter of finding inner peace and tranquility so that we feel more relaxed during the day and are not as apt to yell at Karen and her ninety-seventh email for the day. No one needs that many emails Karen!

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

1) Find a way to shut off the electronics! Most of our anxiety stems from being completely overstimulated by dings, pings, and text messages. If you want to be able to better connect, you have to find some time to be alone and recharge. I like to create tea baths as it nurtures my cooking creativity and a joy for witchy sort of practical magic. I brew a tea of rose petals, lavender, and peppermint and then pour that into a hot bath. I also find that baths limit my ability to use my phone because of the whole water and electronic thing being fatal. It sounds silly but I have to dump myself in a pool of water to let go of my phone so if you have this same problem I’d suggest this. Plus it always feels super luxurious.

2) Meditate. I use the Headspace app and full disclosure I have been terrible at using it lately, and this is the time I need it most. I have been incredibly focused on being as productive as possible, which means I am not taking my own advice! Meditation absolutely helps and I fought my partner over this idea constantly because I’m a bit of a smug pragmatic brat and thought I just didn’t have the time. I was completely wrong about that and even a few minutes of meditation each day just sort of helps my brain reset.

3) Forgive yourself/Give yourself permission to be human! Idon’t know who needs to hear this but whatever you did last week is fine! We live in a world where we willingly put ourselves under a microscope to be viewed and judged by our peers and this comes with a whole mess of emotions that I do not think our little animal brains know how to process. So plain and simple, forgive yourself for being human. I have had to do that many times. I found out a former colleague of mine was “discussing my mental health” with others behind my back and it was both devastating and humiliating. She was judging my social media content and felt that it had become “too emotional”. So to that I say, you are allowed to be human, and that comes with “all the feels”. And it’s important to realize that often people judge you for the things they lack within themselves. So do not allow their perception of you to add any more anxiety to your human experience. It’s called an “experience” for a reason!

4) Never forget, you are what you eat! “With 95 percent of serotonin produced in the gut, according to Havard Medical School, it makes sense that when we eat well it helps to balance our emotions… with studies also backing that a diet high in vegetables, fruit, unprocessed grains, and fish is proven to lower levels of depression compared to those who eat a ‘Western’ processed diet.” Stress eating is real folks! And, I support whatever we need to do to get through hard times, but it is important to be mindful about what goes in our mouth because when we make poor decisions we are actually making whatever “the” problem is, worse. My site Mortician in the Kitchen is my way of providing healthy and delicious meals to help give suggestions so that we can redirect that energy into healthy munchies.

5) Read about, and connect with, other people who are creating art! I have spent more time learning about others than myself during this pandemic and I found that many of the answers I was struggling to find were right in front of my face in the form of colleagues and friends’ work that I had never taken the time to really sit down and digest. Learning about others can help inspire your own work, plus help you make better connections, which in-turn helps strengthen and enrich the community. We have a limited amount of time on this planet and it is ridiculous to think that you can learn everything on your own. By taking the time to sit with my friend Jill Schock of Death Doula LA, I was able to have time to get to know Cole Imperi, The American Thanatologist, and I discovered that her term ‘shadowloss’ which is the idea of experiencing loss in the form of a thing that never had a chance to come into fruition, was an idea I was not just struggling to describe, but an actual form of grief I was dealing with, and once I could label it, was better able to digest and push through.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

  1. Let go of the idea that you need to say the right thing. The number one thing I heard working as a funeral director was, “I just don’t know what to say.” I want to let you know that that is ok! To be perfectly honest, people cannot hear you during this time. They are overwhelmed with their own thoughts and have limited bandwith to process anything you are saying. Instead, I suggest that you “do”. So don’t ask people what they need, put yourself in their shoes and think about what you would need. It can be as simple as checking in with a friend and letting them know that you are here to listen to them or sending them toiletry items that they may not be on top of ordering. What would you do if your friend had the flu and couldn’t leave the house? How would you support them during that time? Just “be” with people and embrace the silence. People will remember that much more. I promise you.
  2. Stop telling people things will be ok. This sounds like a no brainer right? But you would be shocked how many times I overheard this being said to grievers, and the same absolutely goes to those who are dealing with anxiety. Often we say these things to, in reality, reaffirm for ourselves that things will be ok. I suggest that a better way to handle grief and anxiety is to simply listen and acknowledge the fact that your friend’s feelings are real and valid, and that the truth is that it’s not that things “won’t be ok”, it’s that they will be different, and that is ok!
  3. Nurture your friends’ creativity. One of my friends told me that she was going to start transitioning from being a vegetarian to being vegan. She confessed to me that she was really worried about how she would quit cheese. From my reading and research I know that cheese is indeed as addictive as we like to joke about. Cheese contains casein, a dairy protein that releases casomorphins, which are plant compounds that trigger dopamine production in your brain. This means that quitting cheese can be just like quitting any other thing that we use to self-soothe, be it coffee, cigarettes, or alcohol. I went online and purchased all the things my friend would need to learn how to make her own vegan cheese at home, including a great book on vegan cheeses. Having tools that make you feel more in control of your life can greatly reduce your anxiety and stress. Plus, learning and creating strengthens our self-esteem, which in turn can also reduce our stress.
  4. Let your friends be unproductive. The flip side to nurturing creativity is nurturing the desire to do ‘nothing’. There has been a post going around about how Shakespeare allegedly wrote King Lear during the plague. That’s bananas! You don’t need to do that, and neither does your friend. Sometimes ‘nothing’ is the best thing to do and you can support your friend by reminding them that that is ok. If you’re really feeling like you need to do something, you can make a simple gift basket with some cozy pajamas and bath salts to reinforce the do nothing vibes. Or, if you’re my friend, by buying a bottle of Jameson. Trust me, I would know what you meant by that. Some of the greatest art was produced after long periods of downtime, so if your friend is stressed out just remind them that Thom Yorke made Kid A after a lengthy writer’s block, and if you’re not familiar with Radiohead, well, that’s my gift to you in this essay.
  5. Recognize your own anxieties! This bleeds into my advice on the topic of “it’s ok if you don’t know what to say”. Often we say things we think are helpful but are actually a reflection of our own fears. When we are helping our friends be mindful and present, check-in with yourself first, how is your friend’s anxiety affecting you? Is it triggering your own unresolved issues? Are you really upset over what your friend is doing because you made the same mistakes? Remember, sometimes it’s important for our friends to experience certain aspects of life that they need in order to grow and have the same strength you have. So, when offering advice, check-in with yourself first.

What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?

I’m a huge advocate of volunteering in any way shape or form. Often the ability to see how small I am in comparison to the world actually helps to center me. When I worked for The Downtown Women’s Center I found that helping the homeless reminded me that I was part of something much larger than myself and that I was very lucky for the gifts that I have received in life. I personally ran numerous volunteer groups where I saw the same positive mindset take hold in others as well. I ran a cooking class and had some of the greatest return numbers in volunteers because it was an activity that nurtured both the Volunteer personally, and produced visible and instant results. I don’t think instant gratification always has to be a bad thing. We are built to enjoy being rewarded as it releases dopamine and makes us feel good. It’s nice to get that pleasure from helping rather than ‘likes’ on Instagram. I also use to volunteer for an afterschool program called 826LA where I would tutor kids and help with essays. There are a myriad of ways to volunteer your time and effort, and lots of organizations that are desperate for help. Consider fostering an animal if you want something that is both rewarding and cuddly!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Yes! The best thing I have ever been told was, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” I learned that while working at The Downtown Women’s Center and it has always stuck with me. I know for a fact that I have a tendency to come off as either abrasive or occasionally unaware, and that comes from the fact that when I worked as a funeral director I had to ask uncomfortable questions. “Where is the decedent currently located?” is a question that absolutely has to be asked, and there is absolutely a right and a wrong way to ask it. Everything about being a successful funeral director is in your tone and delivery and being aware of that simple advice was life saving.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to push veganism more. I know it’s an eye roll to people but I think that there is a serious disconnect in our life over how we view death and its connection to us all. I believe that you can judge a society by how it treats its animals and while ultimately I understand eating animals I have a serious problem with factory farming and our unending desire for “more”. The idea that we “deserve more” is at the heart of our constant anxiety and worry that we do not have enough. I think people refer to it in another form as “FOMO”, the fear of missing out. Understanding that all life has value and should be respected is in itself a great form of mindfulness and being present, and I think that not eating animals would have the greatest impact on our hearts and our environment.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

You can follow me on Instagram @morticianinthekitchen and you can check out my website for resources on cooking therapy, articles on grief and anxiety, vegan recipes, as well as scheduling a consultation to talk cooking or death. I am currently offering free funeral consultations to anyone affected by COVID-19 if they would like clarification on what their options are and how to better communicate with their funeral director.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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