Brandy Hyatt Shares Story of Friendship, Loss, and Grief (Part 1)

Part 1: Catharine, the Friendly Foodie Behind the Statistic
“What is grief, if not love persevering?” – WandaVision

With millions of lives lost to COVID-19 in the past year, the statistics can feel abstract, even meaningless. How can the human brain process the scope of these tragedies — the millions of children, siblings, partners, family, and friends left behind to grieve the deaths of their loved ones? 

By featuring the voices of young adults who have lost someone to COVID-19, this series is designed to give you a glimpse into the lives lost, and how the people left behind are finding their way forward.

We begin with Brandy, a solar policy advocate balancing work, grad school and grief. As you’ll see in this conversation, her love for her friend, Catharine Phanavong, is still as strong as ever – but it is only one facet of her experience with grief. We’ll be posting this interview in three installments, so keep an eye out for our upcoming posts. 


Brandy Hyatt: So on August 12 of last year, I lost my friend, Catharine. She [lived] in LA, and she and her partner got really sick. And he was able to recover, but she wasn’t. She died from complications, which was related to some pre-existing conditions. She was 39. She loved food, she would cook for everyone, and she was very maternal, at least for me. 

I moved out to California about a year after she did and I didn’t know anyone in the area out here. And so she was really helpful in pushing me to go talk to people, go do this, go do that. And she said, “If you ever feel bad, just take the bus down to LA and come visit.” So I would go to LA every couple of months, and come down and sleep on her couch. And she’d make us breakfast and make me dinner and take me to the beach and drive me around because I don’t have a license, so navigating LA is a struggle. And she was just really posh and polished. And so she would always take us to the fanciest places. And so a lot of the time there would be places with long lines and she would know the bouncer. She was just this very bubbly person who everyone loved.

Charly Jaffe: And I’m curious — how did you two meet?

Brandy Hyatt: We met at the worst job either of us have ever worked, at this tech company in Minnesota. We met in Minneapolis and so one day she came up to me during lunch because I was eating by myself every day and she was like, “What’s your name? What do you do? How old are you?” She just came up to me and started blasting all these questions and I’m like, “This is very intense, this is a lot of energy.”

But we ended up hanging out after that. And so she would sometimes give me rides home cause when it got [to be] winter, a lot of people are just super worried about people who take the bus, saying “I will give you a ride home, I don’t want you to be outside in the cold.” Granted, the bus runs really pretty well in Minneapolis, so I never really had an issue, but we met there and kind of bonded over not really enjoying our job. And then kind of going out and building a friendship from there. 

Lauren Bender: She sounds amazing. It sounds like a really incredible friendship. You said she passed away in August? How long was she sick for?

Brandy Hyatt: She got sick at the end of July, but didn’t tell any of us right away. And I kind of had a feeling because we had been messaging through it. I saw her [for the last time] in January of last year, because we had gone down for my sister’s birthday and hung out. And so she was doing some Zoom hangouts, cooking, etc. But she had sent me the vaguest message at the end of July, asking how I was doing, that she hoped I was doing well. But it was, I don’t know, it was framed so weirdly. And I was like, “Oh, good. How are you?” and then I didn’t get a response for a really long time, for a couple of weeks. And then so she finally told folks she wasn’t doing well, like, “I’m in the hospital, this is happening.” I’m not sure how much she was sick before that, but I know the last week in July, up until August 12 — that timeframe was about how long she was really sick.

Charly Jaffe: I’m curious to hear your perspective. What was your journey with her sickness, emotionally,  throughout that timeframe?

Brandy Hyatt: I guess part of it was [that] I was trying not to engage with being afraid too much while she was sick, just because a lot of people will catch [COVID-19]. And lots of people come out and they’re fine. Like, there’s health issues. But I mean, my friend was 39. So I really felt like, “All right, most likely, she’ll come through and pull through this.” But her partner had mentioned that she wasn’t — it wasn’t turning around as quickly. I guess I really was trying to not engage with the worst case scenario. I was really thinking the best.

And finding out about her death was kind of hard, because I started getting text messages from people because I hadn’t been on social media for two days. And I hadn’t checked or anything or texted, because you know, you don’t want to bother anyone when they’re in the hospital. So we hadn’t messaged in about two weeks. And I started getting messages on social media and texts on my phone and found out about her death that way, which was a little frustrating for me. It made me go, “Oh my god, I should have been checking in more,” but I’m also like, “How much energy does somebody have around their deathbed?” 

A lot of it was just hard. I feel like I have less of that now. But in the beginning, I was frustrated at myself. I was upset that I didn’t reach out more, text more, do more to check in. While she was sick, I felt like I was doing her a favor, right? Trying to be like, “Space, keeping good thoughts” and thinking like, “Yeah, everybody’s gonna pull through.” I don’t think anyone thinks that that’s gonna be the last time when they go to the hospital and don’t come back out.

The end of Catharine’s life marked the beginning of a new journey with grief for Brandy. Come back next week to hear how Brandy navigates drawing boundaries in grief.

If you are a young adult grieving the serious illness or loss of a loved one to COVID-19, COVID Grief Network offers both 1:1 and group support, which you can sign up for here. If you’re a young adult in our network and you’re interested in sharing your story for future installments of the Our Voices blog, please reach out to us at

A Shared Journey: Surviving and Supporting Grief

Since experiencing significant and sudden loss at an early age and the pain, confusion, and trauma that followed, I’ve been called to supporting young people in their grief.

As a writer, teacher, listener, and indigenous spiritual practitioner, I am devoted to grief vulnerability because it’s what I can do to help shift grieving culture. I remind people that they don’t have to hide it, that it’s normal, that it’s hard, that it’s not linear, and also, that it’s survivable.

When I saw COVID Grief Network’s (CGN) call for volunteers to offer supportive listening to young adults in grief, I saw it as my chance to do more, to help relieve some of the ever growing isolation I was witnessing. As a grief group facilitator for CGN, I meet weekly with a group of young adults who have all lost someone to COVID. I provide light facilitation and open each conversation with a question to get us started; however, it’s the young adults in the group who really shape and maintain the energy in that space. By sharing and listening, they find relief and community in others who really understand the nuances and particular pains of grieving a COVID loss. I listen and I keep the conversation flowing. I offer guiding questions for each session, but also honor whatever topics arise: vaccine access, anger, family and friends not showing up, dealing with the estate, and the thoughts that continue to intrude. This space is sacred. It’s an honor to show up and be able to help support their pain and acknowledge their experiences. I’m deeply appreciative of their vulnerability and willingness to share.

And, like many who hold grief space–and as someone with my own experience of loss–their stories and experiences touch something deep in me. When I hear their stories of the last time they spoke to their person, I remember what it was like to be in that hospital room in my own darkest hour. Though I am years out and so much therapy away from the shock, my nervous system is still impacted by these memories. When grief meets trauma, nothing is linear. 

So, how do I offer my greatest gift while protecting my energy, and my own grief? I resource. I ask for help. After checking in with my therapists, I developed a practice. I take 5-10 minutes before each group to build an altar of my strength and resilience, rooted in my intention to offer support. I do a visualization to ground my energy into the earth. I increase my self-care through meditation, breathwork, drinking enough water, sharing my experience with my fellow CGN organizers, and, of course, attending the sibling loss grief group I’m a member of.

I fortify myself to offer something that blends my desires and skills. I will always be grieving my sister. I am grateful I have found a way to be both at once: a person surviving loss and a person offering grief support.

Covid Grief Is Different. Here’s Why.

As the death toll of COVID-19 continues to rise, and news outlets breathlessly report on the rate of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, the over 3.5 million people who are grieving the illness and death of their loved ones are mostly unseen. Under ordinary circumstances, grieving and honoring 500,000 American lives lost would be an unimaginable burden. But the circumstances of the pandemic and quarantine make grieving even more difficult and lonely. In many cases, family members get a phone call from someone telling them that a loved one is in the hospital, but that they’re not able to visit due to COVID restrictions. So they wait. Each day they might get an update, and continue hoping for the best. Those that are lucky are able to say goodbye over the phone or via video chat.

And then, unfortunately, folks are often left to grieve alone, because the very thing that led to grief also requires isolation. There can be no funerals, no memorials, no ritual gatherings to support and comfort the families of the deceased. And because our society has decided that COVID-19 is an individual issue, rather than one that the whole of society must confront and mourn, there is little public acknowledgment of this loss. More than 400,000 Americans died before there was any real effort at a national remembrance event. Sports teams aren’t wearing any special colors or insignia to raise awareness or support. Of course, there are no concerts or benefits. Incredibly, you are often met with arguments about the effectiveness of wearing masks, social distancing, and even the severity of this pandemic itself — the very measures that might have prevented the loss of a loved one. This combination of being constantly confronted with the news and realities of COVID, but unseen in grief is distinctive. And it makes grieving in this context all the more unique. 

Grieving a loved one to any cause, in any moment can be challenging. And in our death-denying culture, it can be hard for mourners of all kinds to find support, community, and healing. But our society’s infrastructure for supporting folks grieving a death due to COVID is especially thin. Hospitals, care providers, and mutual aid networks have stepped up to cobble together programs and guides to support people in ways that are almost exclusively virtual and reliant upon word-of-mouth. Ultimately, this work is powerful, but it also illustrates how much work there still is to do to provide equitable access to healthcare and grief support. In the wake of the monumental damage done by the pandemic, grief is one of those things that must adapt. In the absence of traditional rituals that accompany grief like wakes and funerals, visitations and sitting shiva, people have to find new ways to process their grief in a society that has mostly turned away from their loss.

The necessity of finding new ways to process grief, coupled with the societal responses to COVID, makes COVID grief unique. But connection continues to be possible. Young adults in our network often find some relief in feeling fully seen and heard by their volunteer, and in meeting with other young adults who know what it’s like to lose someone to COVID. Though sometimes it can feel like the world is turning away from grief in a period of massive loss, we can always turn towards each other. We can be a resource for each other.