Three coronavirus-shaped relatives showing up on elderly people's doorstep carrying Thanksgiving dishes
Illustration by Hunter French
Health

What to Do if You Think Your Cousins Might Give Grandma COVID This Holiday

Come up with some fun alternative plans, and know that drilling your relatives with objectively true facts might not be the most effective route here.
November 5, 2020, 12:30pm
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Hard to Say is a column about delicate situations and difficult conversations, for people who wish they could hire a ghostwriter for all their texts.

It’s an annual tradition in my family that my grandparents—who live out on a farm in a small, rural town in Texas—host everyone for Thanksgiving. “Everyone” includes me, my brother, my mom and my stepdad, as well as my mom’s brother’s family of five. My grandparents are both in their 80s and my grandpa is not doing well, health-wise. There’s pressure to find a way to still get together at their house for Thanksgiving, but my uncle and cousins are conservative, anti-mask people. Basically, we do not know that even the very real threat of possibly killing Granny and Papa—a high probability, if anyone were to have COVID—is enough to convince them to quarantine and get tested before coming out for Thanksgiving, because they don’t totally believe the threat is real. Based on his Instagram activity, the oldest cousin, who’s my age, has gone to Mexico and to a wedding in the past month alone. 

TL;DR: We find ourselves in a not-uncommon tough spot this year. How do we go about either convincing the family that hosting a physical Thanksgiving, which may be the last one my grandpa is present for, is not in the cards, or otherwise convince the anti-mask component of the family that they need to take this shit seriously, if only to spare our grandparents? 

A terrible truth about 2020: We can choose to do the right things, often at great personal cost, but other people—even people we care about, including our own relatives!—might be completely disinclined to make safe or wise choices. And when that happens, they aren’t just threatening themselves and others in the abstract sense; they are threatening people we know personally and feel a particular sense of duty to protect, and who we would feel like we failed if we didn’t do everything in our power to intervene. 

You’re right that this isn’t an uncommon spot to be in this year, and I’m sad and angry for you and for everyone who has to both make the decision to not see elderly relatives for what could be their last holiday, and—as if that weren’t enough!!!—convince their family members that the coronavirus is indeed a real threat. I know we’ve been at this for months now, but I’m freshly furious thinking about how outrageous it is that at least 225,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 complications, and there are still folks out here acting like it’s not that serious, or that flying to Mexico or going to a wedding right now or putting their own loved ones (and selves!!) at risk is a cool and fine thing to do. 

To be quite honest, I was simply not prepared for the ways in which facts would cease to matter in my adult life. When I think about the ways so many people are denying the reality of this pandemic, or the fact that the core belief of the ever-growing and fully delusional QAnon cohort is that prominent Democrats are trafficking children in order to kill them and then drink their blood and there’s kind of no way to convince them otherwise, I want to cry. 

Anyway!!! Here are some things that I think you and others who are dealing with similar situations this holiday season could try to get through to your relatives and plan a safer family gathering.

Figure out your ideal alternate holiday scenarios.

You know that old work chestnut that says, “Don’t go to your boss with a problem without also bringing her a solution”? Well, that sentiment applies here. Don’t tell folks what they can’t do without offering some other options. Put some thought into what exactly you’d like everyone to do instead this year, and come up with a range of scenarios that you rank by safety. In an ideal world, you’d convince them to do a Zoom holiday, but if they simply won’t relent, no matter what you do or say, you may have to eventually pivot to trying to convince them to do a gathering with just two households instead of the typical six, or three households but outside. 

Beyond that, put a lot of thought into how, practically speaking, a Zoom holiday would work—and even be nice!—for your family, so you can approach these conversations with concrete suggestions. This could look like everything from “I’m going to mail Granny my old iPad and then call her and walk her through exactly how to use it” to “Mom and Uncle Jerry are going to divide up our traditional Thanksgiving menu and prepare the dishes at their own respective homes, and then will drive portions around and leave on each household’s porch the morning of so everyone can eat the traditional dinner ‘together.’” (Required reading for this step: How to Make Socially Distanced Holidays Actually Feel Special.) 

Thinking through the logistics and smallest details in advance shows you care enough to make this work (and to take on the brunt of planning), and gives you an opportunity to actually get your relatives excited about the alternative plan. They may just not be able to envision a distanced holiday at the moment, and part of what you need to do here is convince them that this will be much better and more holiday-esque than they think it will be.

Know that drilling your relatives with facts might not be the most effective route here. 

You know your family best, so you know what they are most likely to respond to, especially at this point in the pandemic. But keep in mind that coming with a ton of data might not actually help—because so much about the holidays and family dynamics are emotional, not logical. You should still be prepared to talk to them about the case numbers and hospitalizations where you all live and the fact that a “mild” case is quite uncomfortable in ways the flu is simply not (and many people are feeling the effects of their COVID infection for months). And go ahead and prepare your shortlist of examples of family events that turned into superspreader tragedies. But you should also think about why your family members are emotionally attached to celebrating in-person/as usual this year, and come up with some talking points that tap into feelings more than hard facts. That might sound more like…

  • “Even if we do celebrate together in person this year, it won’t be the same—we’ll have to take so many precautions and keep such a big distance, and we won’t be able to do things like hug or sing together around the piano or sit shoulder-to-shoulder while we eat. I actually think doing something entirely different will feel better than trying to pretend everything is normal when it’s so obviously not.”
  • “I know I won’t be able to relax and enjoy myself if we get together; I’ll be too stressed about whether or not we’re breathing on each other, or taking enough precautions.” 
  • “We’ve been doing this for so long already, and I’d hate to give up now and have the past several months be for nothing. And I’m worried that that’s exactly my kind of luck.” 
  • “I understand that you don’t care if you get sick, but I care if you get sick or if you die—I would be devastated to lose you right now, and to not even be able to be with you in the hospital or attend your funeral or grieve with other people because we can’t gather together.” 

While you might blanche at the idea of saying words like “die” and “funeral,” that is in fact what we’re talking about here, and it doesn’t do us much good to speak in euphemisms. (Very early on in the pandemic, my mom texted the group chat I’m in with her, my 16-year-old brother, and my girlfriend, and was like, “Please tell your brother why he can’t go hang out with his friends right now because he doesn’t seem to believe me that it’s a bad idea,” and I responded, “Because you could kill Grandma.” [My mom, brother, and grandmother live together in the same house.] He simply responded, “Wow.” But it turns out that that was all he needed to hear; he totally dropped the issue once he fully understood what was actually at stake!) 

I don’t think that “die” is a magic word that will instantly change hearts and minds, but I do think we need to name our fears, and not tiptoe around the reality of this situation. A normal family Thanksgiving could end in death. No one thinks the worst is going to happen to them, but it keeps happening. 

In terms of the conversations, you have a few options, though you might need to go down all three paths anyway. 

Option 1: Talk to your grandparents directly. 

Whether this makes sense depends on the relationship you have with your grandparents, and how much you talk directly about things like this (versus talking through your parents).

I do think it’s important to start by talking to them yourself, if that’s possible/makes sense for your relationship, because it’s a way to remind yourself that your grandparents aren’t sweet little old people—they are grown adults with agency (who might also happen to be sweet and old and little). I understand why it might feel like they are being taken advantage of by your other relatives, and, of course, they might be! But treating them as dopey or helpless or fragile is likely to put them on the defensive, and only talking to your COVID-spreading cousin about them—versus talking to them directly—communicates “you’re old so your opinions don’t matter.” 

On that note, keep in mind that your grandparents might really bristle at being treated as high-risk (even if they very much are), elderly (even if it’s true), or incapable of making decisions for themselves (even if you find their decisions… questionable). This Washington Post article on talking to older relatives is a good primer on this topic, and also has helpful practical tips for tough conversations with aging relatives. 

(With this in mind, does it make sense to make this more about your safety than theirs? That is, they might not mind risking it all to be able to see their grandkids, or they might not believe they are at risk… but they might respond to the idea of not wanting to kill their grandkids.)

Option #2: Talk to your parent (or a close aunt or uncle) about the issue, and see what they can do to intervene.

Your parent—your grandparents’ child—knows their parents well, and is likely comfortable disagreeing with them or even fighting with them, and also knows what does and does not work to persuade them. If they can be blunt in a way you simply can’t be, have more regular contact with your grandparents, or can talk to their siblings directly about what’s going on, that approach might make the most sense. If, on the other hand, you know your parent is super non-confrontational (or is just terrible at arguing with your grandparents), you might be better off doing it yourself. 

Regardless, it’s still worthwhile to have a conversation with your parent about all of this. Ideally, they’ll back you up and be willing to strategize with you about the best way to handle the situation. For example, if your family’s traditional gathering is kind of dependent on your dad being willing to cook/host everyone, he can refuse to do that. Or your mom can say she isn’t going to go to an in-person dinner this year, and neither will you or your siblings, thus cutting the total number of households/attendees down. The latter isn’t the best solution, but it’s something—and once a couple of key family members drop out, everyone might start to realize that this year is going to look different, and be willing to start talking through what a Zoom event might look like. 

Option #3: Talk to your cousin directly about the issue.

If you never really talk to your cousin, it might feel weird to reach out to them to have a really fraught conversation or even an argument. But we’re adults, and we can do hard, new-to-us things, like contacting our fellow grown people and trying to level with them. 

When you reach out to your cousin, keep an open mind and a genuine, friendly tone, and avoid judgment or blame during the conversation. This should be less about how you feel that they, personally, are a likely vector of a horrible disease, and more about collaborating with them to make things safer for everyone.

You could start by saying something like, “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about Thanksgiving this year when you have some time. As much as I’d love to see everyone in person and do [traditional thing], I’m really worried about one of us getting Granny and Papa sick, and I know [my parents][siblings][Aunt Carol] is concerned too. Could we talk this weekend about some ways that we can mitigate risk or plan things a bit differently this year?” From there, try to set up a time for a call (or whatever) where you can talk about your concerns and present some of your alternative ideas, and hear what they have to say. 

While talking to your cousin might not ultimately get you anywhere, I still think it’s a wise move. At the very least, it’s a show of good faith—a way to communicate, “I’m not sneaking around or calling you a walking Petri dish to our extended family behind your back.” 

Regardless of who you’re talking to, ask lots of questions. 

If your loved ones are resistant to your suggested alternatives, ask them to tell you more about what they want from the holidays, e.g., “What things do you love about celebrating this holiday that you don’t think we can replicate via Zoom?” or “Why do you feel so strongly that you need to see all the cousins in person this year? Because to me, Zoom is a clear choice for [XYZ reasons]. What am I missing?” The more you understand, the more you can do to address those specific concerns or offer compromises. 

Having this information isn’t foolproof, of course; if their favorite parts of Thanksgiving are big bear hugs and standing shoulder-to-shoulder around the piano and singing loudly, well… that’s not going really feasible this year. But I’m also willing to bet that you can come up with a few alternative ways to do a singalong that kinda-sorta recreate that warm and connected feeling that they are seeking.

Expect this to be a series of conversations.

It often takes people a little while to warm up to an idea—especially one that goes against their current vision for a big event they were looking forward to. Think about the things you’ve had to give up this year (or ever), and consider which ones were the hardest for you to accept. It probably took a little time, right? And maybe some side conversations with a few trusted people, plus a little mourning period for the thing you were losing? 

That’s so fair, and so normal—so when talking with your relatives, don’t give up immediately, or scream “Fine, I hope you and Granny enjoy your Thanksgiving turkey of DEATH, I guess I’ll see you in hell!!!!” if you encounter a little push-back at first. Steven Zarit, an expert in human development and family studies, told The Atlantic in 2016 that adult children trying to change their parents’ minds about something should, “plant an idea, step back, and bring it up later. Be patient.” (And, really, that’s good advice anytime you’re trying to persuade someone to see things differently.) So plan to make your case, let them make theirs, do your best to persuade them, and then, if you’re hitting a wall, say something like, “Will you at least read some of the articles I sent you and think about it some more before ruling it out entirely?” 

Enlist the help of the family favorite.

Maybe not all families are like mine, with a matriarch who sort of openly loves one of her children and one of her grandchildren way more than the others… but if your grandparent also has a favorite, and that favorite is overall neutral on this topic, do what you can to get their buy-in on a distanced holiday. My grandma will do anything to see her favorites and make them happy, and I’m pretty confident one of them could change her mind in a way that no one else could when she’s being stubborn. (On the other hand, if the favorite in your fam is the anti-mask, pro–normal Thanksgiving person, you should know that your task is unfortunately going to be much harder.) 

If your grandparent doesn’t have a favorite, are there other people they admire or look up to who happen to be encouraging people to stay home, wear masks, and do distanced holidays that you could point to? Think: old friends of theirs, celebrities, Michelle Obama, etc. Even some prominent Republicans are pro-mask, like George W. Bush, who actually encouraged people to be “creative in our outreach” to combat loneliness and isolation. Get creative and, again, give it a little time. 

Know that there’s only so much you can do, and don’t beat yourself up too much if you can’t change their minds.

Ultimately, we can only control ourselves; our relatives are their own people with their own unique needs and politics and feelings about health and holidays and what is or isn’t worth risking your life for. Families are a whole other complicated beast. I totally understand the urge to do everything in your power to prevent a tragic outcome, but also try to remember that saving your loved ones from themselves isn’t your responsibility alone, or even something you’re capable of doing. Try your very best, and be willing to stand firm in your own choices—like not participating IRL, even if everyone else is doing it—but also know that it’s not a personal failing if you can’t convince them to see things your way. If convincing people to wear masks or cancel family gatherings was easy, we wouldn’t be in this situation.