#1274 and #1275: COVID-19 and Family Visits and Weddings

Hi, Captain,

To cut to the chase, I (she/her) have an autoimmune disease for which I take several immunosuppressant medications — none of which are working particularly well. My parents are both over the age of 60. You can probably tell where this is going.

My sister (she/her) is getting married at the end of July. Her fiancé is great, I think they’re very well matched, and I’m so happy for them both!

However, my sister is still planning on having a ceremony and reception despite the pandemic. She will follow the state guidelines (at this point, my state allows groups up to 50, although it’s possible that could increase by the time of the wedding) but will not hear anything about cancelling/postponing/switching to Zoom/etc. I understand it, I really do — she wants to have a public celebration of their commitment, plus the small issue that, unless the venue chooses to close, she’s looking at losing thousands of dollars.

My resentment about this keeps building and building because, from my perspective, this is unconscionably risky behavior. I know it’s not fair and it’s not the way she’s looking at it, but it feels like she’s saying “I know this could be a matter of life and death for you, but I really just want to have a party”.

I think I need to not attend her wedding. We’ve already talked about it and she says she’ll understand if “people” don’t attend for pandemic reasons, but I don’t know if she’ll really understand if her only sister doesn’t go.

But honestly, I think the bigger issue is that my parents are gung-ho about attending. I am so, so worried for them. They are not taking this situation especially seriously anyways, so I don’t think they’ll exactly be stringent on mask-wearing and hand-washing at their daughter’s wedding. I know that if they get sick I will blame my sister (I would never say this out loud, but it would be in my head and heart) even if there’s not way to prove it came from her wedding.

I suppose this can be boiled down to:
1. Do you think I should attend her wedding? If no, how do I tell her?
2. Either way, how do I move past the feeling of resentment that she is willing to risk the lives of her family during a pandemic?

Thank you so much for any help!

We’ll call this #1274. Hold tight for #1275 and I’ll be back to you in a sec.

Dear Captain Awkward,

My parents live outside Atlanta. We live in Colorado. Mom has lots of family and old friends in Iowa.

They are going to drive across the country, just as everything is opening, and do two reunions in Iowa before coming here to Colorado. Fortunately, they own a condo out here.

We have two small children (5 & 7), I am an only child, these are their only grandchildren. My dad owns a used bookstore and has kept it open the *entire* time. Fortunately, as of now, everyone is healthy. The kids have been going to daycare, and are masked constantly. We trust the staff there and measures are taken to keep possible exposure to a minimum.

I am very concerned for their health, and ours. I am worried that their trip will expose them to COVID (among other things). I feel like they have not taken the last few months very seriously. 5 days after they get here, they are expecting us to do a dinner out (probably) for my dad’s birthday. And then a day later my dad is flying back to Atlanta to his bookstore!

How can I politely tell them that I feel very uncomfortable about the whole situation and that I would prefer that they quarantine for a minimum of two weeks before seeing grandkids in person? I mean, yes, I could say it exactly like that, but see only child, and mom is…dramatic and has a bit of a persecution complex at the best of times.

Any advice would be appreciated.

Hello to both of you, thanks for writing.

Our government is not going to protect us. Not in time. So we have to protect us. Which means making some tough decisions about our own risk tolerance and what we are willing to do for our neighbors and ourselves.

These questions are both versions of the same question.

Quick, which is scarier:

  1. Having a series of arguments with family members who have set their minds on something you suspect is a bad idea for them and know is a bad idea for you?
  2. Attending a party or parties where everybody in your family will be exposed to potential illness and death?

They also have the same general answer:

  • To set boundaries with others, you need to know what yours are.
  • You can’t control other people, you can only control yourself. So what will YOU do?
  • You can consider other people’s feelings in your decisions, but you cannot prevent or control their feelings.
  • Nor can you prevent your own feelings. Saying “no” to people who want a “yes” and who will berate you to get one isn’t ever going to feel awesome. Let’s build that in to deciding what to do.

Letter Writer #1274, sounds like there’s no way you are going to be able to safely go and have fun at that wedding.

Letter Writer #1275, I think you’re still figuring out what your boundaries are here. You’d prefer that your parents not take the trip at all, for their safety. But the thing you can control here is your own safety and your kids’ safety and the precautions that you & your kids plan to take to not be virus-spreaders to others. What would you need from your parents in order to safely spend time with them?

The scripts come out of knowing what you need and what you’ll do to take care of yourself. For Letter Writer #1274, that could look like this:

  • RSVP “no” to the wedding when the invitations go out, with personal note that says “Congratulations on your marriage. Given [immune system junk], I’m going to have to congratulate you from afar that day.” Send them a nice present for their wedding and let that be your answer.
  • Stay firm in your “no,” even when the pressure from your parents and your sister comes your way and they try to make it about how inconsiderate you are for not wanting to catch a debilitating and possibly fatal respiratory illness on her special day.
  • You could try…logic?: “The government has made almost no progress in testing, no progress on creating a meaningful contact tracing and quarantine program, no progress on enforcing universal mask use, nor have they taken any of the measures that would actually quell this thing. Until they do? There’s probably no safe party. I’m so sorry, I know how much you were looking forward to this, but I honestly think the right thing to do is to cancel and try again next year. But if you’re set on this? I hope it’s the party you want it to be and everyone is very lucky. I still can’t risk it, not even for you.”
  • You could skip directly to the end: “I’m sorry, my decision is made. I hope it’s the party you want it to be, I’ll have to celebrate with you another time.” 
  • Stay firm in your “no” no matter what your parents and your sister throw at you. “Don’t you want to see YOUR ONLY SISTER get MARRIED?” “I do! I hope someone will run a camera or have an open video-conferencing link so I can watch from home.” You don’t have to die for a party to prove you love people. Your sister has choices that would make it possible for you to participate in her wedding. Let her use up all the ones where you don’t die before you accept blame for possibly “ruining” her special day.

For Letter #1275 it could look like this:

  • “Mom, Dad, can you walk me through your trip again? You’re going to see us how many days after you see [reunion bunch]?” Make sure you have the facts of their plan right before you argue with their plan.
  • From there, it’s what you’re willing to safely do.
    • Masks on, park or back yard, set up chairs 6+ feet apart, everyone stays in their chair, no hugs, but you can see everybody’s faces in the flesh? Maybe kids stay on the other side of a screen door to minimize hug temptations?
    • Yes to family dinner (w/hugs) if they quarantine at their condo for 10-14 days after the rest of their trip and before they see you and the kids?
    • No to all of it because you don’t feel safe or comfortable and you don’t trust your parents to respect the rules once you’re all in the same place?
  • Yes, your kids are their only grandchildren, which makes them precious grandparents you don’t want to lose for preventable reasons and also makes you & your fellow parent your children’s only set of parents, which means YOU get to decide for your kids as well as yourselves. You are absolutely allowed to say “I don’t want to put the kids and us at risk like that, I’m sorry, an actual visit will have to wait until it’s much safer or until you have enough time to do a real quarantine.” 
  • You can make this their problem to solve and keep putting the onus on them. “If you can arrange to quarantine for at least 10-14 days before you see the kids, we’d love to see you. If your current trip doesn’t allow for that, we understand, we’ll catch you next time.” i.e. You can refuse to accept the framing that this is about you  being an unreasonable worrywart and keep reframing it as, “Hey, I understand that Dad can only be away from the store for so long, so if you can’t build in the necessary quarantine, that’s ok, we’re not mad at you that you won’t be able to see us, but surely you understand that I have to look out for my kids and put them first.” From the Twitter Peanut gallery: “I’d rather skip a visit now than have to introduce your grandkids to the concept of a Zoom funeral.
  • This is an optional vacation. Your parents do not have to take these trips. Just, idk, keep the relative stakes in perspective when you’re like “I don’t want to risk my kids getting ill because you wanted a vacation” and your parents are like “DON’T YOU CARE ABOUT FAAAAAMILY.”

Both Letter Writers: After you say “no,” prepare to be pressured and prepare to be gaslit. The magical thinking about “reopening” is exactly that: magical thinking.

Edited to Add: In many cases those of us negotiating with “come on, it’s not that bad!” relatives are fighting both propaganda that is trying to reshape reality so that wealthy people can keep right on making money no matter how many people get sick and die and normalcy biaswhich is the notion that if a problem were THAT serious, surely someone somewhere important would be doing something about it. Normalcy bias is a useful tool for autocracy and kleptocracy because it conditions citizens to minimize threats, and that is why the deliberate incompetence of the U.S. government’s response to the pandemic is so dangerous. The longer they keep not doing anything about it and reassuring people that it will blow over any second, the more people die. The more we get used to people dying, the more the “If it’s really that bad, surely …someone will…do… something?” reaction gets challenged. The cognitive dissonance gets louder and louder and eventually people have to concede either “It really was that bad, and our government totally failed and nobody was doing anything about it” or “It must not have been that bad, just another case of the worrywarts overreacting.” Since one of these options lets people feel comfortable and safe and entitled to keep getting haircuts and abusing the waitstaff at Red Lobster and the other requires some uncomfortable rethinking of priorities, it’s easy to see why the “fun” option (that’s secretly full of DEATH except it’s not a secret) keeps winning out.

I keep saying that the great American pastime is not baseball, it’s deciding the exact right amount someone else should have reacted to a situation after the fact. I keep meaning to write a full-length essay about that horrid pastime and the damage it does in interpersonal relationships,  and I mention it now because that automatic victim-blaming and minimization tendency was already strong in our culture. Normalcy bias mixed with American exceptionalism mixed with actually malicious propaganda is a perfect storm for continued death and suffering and continued “Who could have possibly known this would happen?” handwringing (and gaslighting) from pundits and people who were supposed to be fucking doing something about this, especially down the road when the history books are written and the answer was, anyone could have known if they were willing to be honest about certain things. I know. So do you, Letter Writers. It is possible for ordinary non-expert citizens to know, which means it was always possible for the people in charge to know. We aren’t magical Cassandras cursed by Apollo, we are just people who would rather have truth than comfort, in the middle of the extremely uncomfortable realization that nothing’s changed in human nature in 2800 years (give or take).

I keep saying that what I fear the most from the pandemic is not death, it’s cruelty; it’s normalization of indifference and cruelty toward suffering and death.

What I’m seeing in these “for the love of god, wear a mask and take precautions!” pleas to family members who are like “lalalalala I’m not listening” is part of this normalization of cruelty and indifference. It’s people who suspect that they are doing a wrong or selfish thing turning on the people close to them who call them to account for doing that thing, it’s people deciding that it’s easier to blame you for ruining their fun (and try to guilt, shame, or browbeat you into compliance) than it is to acknowledge the dangers that are still very much with us, and it’s not surprising to me that it’s running along entrenched power structures in families (parents to adult children, parents to daughters or daughter-coded adult children, known Difficult Family Members doing what they always do and everyone else leaning on The Reasonable One to go along to get along and keep the peace).

Does that make sense? The same kinds of fights over “You’ll ruin Christmas if you don’t come home and let everyone abuse you this year” and “You know how [Awful Relative]  is, why do you argue with [racist things they say], it’s just giving it attention!” are happening now, with even higher stakes, around the pandemic.

Power and propaganda work the same in families as in governments, the application being “We can keep doing what we like as long as we can convince most people that it’s not that bad, pressure the few who can’t be convinced to shut up about it, and control flare-ups of honesty by keeping everything endlessly debatable and focused on personal intentions rather than outcomes. If we can rewrite history enough, we can create the narrative that the people who pointed out the problem were really at fault for creating the problem. If we can get them to blame themselves for not doing enough soon enough? We can make a self-renewing shame-blame cycle that lasts forever.” 

So what do we do when our families are jerks and then try to scapegoat us about that? We keep telling the truth, we refuse to let ourselves be mistreated to serve the illusion of other people’s comfort, and we return the awkwardness to sender. Consider the political applications of that as you parse the personal ones. [/Edit]

Letter Writers, probably neither of you can convince your parents to stay put. You can try? But if they’re just tuning you out, at some point, it’s their life, they get to choose their risk tolerance.

But here’s the deal: They can’t actually make you participate. They can plan all the dinners and parties they want. You can still keep your ass at home. They can accuse you of overreacting and they can make scenes and call you names. You can still keep your ass at home. You can try to explain nicely, with plenty of advance notice, the reasoning for your decision but if that turns into a giant argument and manipulation campaign you can also quietly keep your ass at home on the day – like you told them clearly that you would – and they can’t make you show up to somewhere you know is probably dangerous for you and other people. If you know that for sure, you can reclaim some of your power in the situation. “I already told you no. Do you want to keep fighting about it, or do you want to talk about something else?” 

Letter Writer #1274: You’re afraid of resenting your sister and want help not doing that. Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, ok? If the party goes well and nobody gets sick, your sister will have her day (minus you, a thing she will just have to live with). I hope it goes like that.

If your parents  (or your sister, or other guests, or the venue catering staff who are forced to work, Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate) die or develop debilitating health problems because they insist on attending a wedding during a pandemic,  IT WILL BE OK IF YOU GET BIG MAD ABOUT THAT. (I closed comments, but please imagine all the people who HAVE cancelled their expensive, much-longed-for weddings sending a silent Internet FUCK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU in your sister & her fiancé’s direction right now). You can probably resent your sister proportionally less if you decide you’re mad at her for throwing the party and also mad at your parents for going to it, but please trust that if the worst happens there will be enough mad and sad that you can spread it out a bit and decide what, if anything, you want to express or do with it. But one thing at a time! Right now we want you to not get sick. That is a thing you can exercise control over, so start there.

Letter Writer #1275, you mentioned that your mom can be dramatic and have a bit of a persecution complex. Fun!

Here’s my question for you about that, a variation on the first question in the post. Which is more scary:

  1. Your mom being dramatic and accusing you of persecuting her when you don’t do what she wants?
  2. Everybody in your family exposing each other to illness and death?

You’ve survived a lot of #1, probably, and lived to tell the tale. You hold the cards of the sole grandchildren, so if everybody can actually survive the next two years, chances are your relationship can survive, too. If it can’t, I promise, it wasn’t you who destroyed it.

For everyone reading, I get being sick of this, and being sick of not just the need to mask up and socially distance and be very careful about interacting with humans and have all the things you counted on be off-limits, but also being sick of the morass of conflicting guidelines and information and the truly sickening knowledge that so many people died and the people in charge didn’t really do anything about it and aren’t going to do anything different than they have about it in the forseeable future. Everybody with power seems to be hoping that we’ll just…forget? The deadly pandemic?

It would be so easy to tune out of all of it and just accept the magical thinking that it won’t be that bad and that you’ll be one of the exceptions and that this has all been an overreaction. Just, before you accept any wedding invitations or fun dinner events, do me a favor:

Google “Covid-19 lung transplant images” from the past week. [IT IS GRAPHIC AS FUCK, THIS IS YOUR WARNING]

Still feel like going out?

That’s your choice, then, and may your god or gods go with you, but you’re not allowed to pressure anybody else to come with.

P.S. I got everyone’s VERY CONCERNED letters about protests and pandemics, so I’m ready for the “HOW can you say it’s not cool to have a WEDDING when you advised people to mask up and join the protests if they could, GOTCHA!”

  1. I’m very sad about people having to cancel weddings, I’m sad for all the students who worked so hard not having graduations, I’m sad for all the grieving people having to log into video funerals instead of being hugged by family and delicious casseroles, I’m sad for all the rituals of human togetherness that we are missing right now.
  2. Quick, what’s scarier:
  • Open, unapologetic extrajudicial murder by armed state security services, which disproportionately kills Black (and Indigenous) people?
  • COVID-19, which disproportionately kills Black (and Indigenous) people?

To me, these are the same fight, and in the words of my friend Mikki, there’s no wrong way to fight for your life.

I said in my initial post that if you don’t feel safe going or can’t protest, no argument from me, there are plenty of other ways to get involved, pick one of those! But the “people are protesting state-sanctioned murder and passive genocide, so it’s not fair that an internet advice columnist said I shouldn’t have a dinner party!” takes are not making the case you think they are, and I’m actually very cool with being seen as “unfair” about this.