My grandfather died from the coronavirus, and I want to visit my newly widowed grandmother for Thanksgiving. Is that a bad idea?

In this April 21, 2020, photo, Marguerite Mouille, 94, gestures while her visiting daughter takes a photo at the Kaisesberg nursing home, eastern France. France has started to break the seals on its locked down nursing homes, allowing limited visitation rights for the families of elderly residents. The visits are proving bittersweet for some, too short and restricted to make up for weeks of isolation and loneliness. But they are shedding light on the immense emotional toll caused by locking down care homes. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

  • When it comes to making holiday plans involving travel, there's no right answer since everything involves some risk. 
  • To help make a decision, try to weigh the practical risks of potentially spreading COVID-19 with the mental and emotional benefits of physically being there with your loved one. 
  • If you choose to go, adopt as many safety protocols as possible, like traveling by car and making sure there's plenty of ventilation (and mask wearing) if you gather indoors. 
  • If you choose to stay, find ways to connect with your grandmother like having her teach you a family recipe or join you on a virtual trip to another country. 
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Dear Anna,

My grandfather died from the coronavirus last month. My whole family, especially my newly-widowed grandmother, is heartbroken.

I feel like being with her for Christmas would really help her cope, but I'm also well aware of the risks that could pose — I'm in good health but would need to travel across several states to see her.

I'm torn over which is more selfless: being there with her during this time, or doing everything to protect her from the virus that killed her husband?   

— Jane, Baltimore

Dear Jane,

Wow, I'm so sorry for your loss. Your family and grandma must be really hurting right now, and I admire your ability to occupy even more brain and emotional space to consider making plans that may ease your grandma's pain. 

Truth is, there's no right answer here (sorry) or really with any family's decision about how to handle this holiday season, which will truly be like no other. 

There's no risk-free choice — staying home doesn't mean she can't catch the coronavirus some other way; going doesn't necessarily mean she'll feel more supported if, for example, you choose not to hug or stay in her home in an effort to keep her safe. 

Weigh the practical risks with the mental-health benefits 

While there's no perfect answer, there are some helpful ways to think about it, epidemiologist Dr. Tista Ghosh, medical director at Grand Rounds, a digital healthcare company, told me. 

First, think about it practically. Ask yourself what sorts of coronavirus risks could your visit pose, considering things like transmission levels in both your areas, how you would travel and where you would stay, whether other family members would join and what their health status is, and how you would get together once you're there. 

Remember, while we're still learning a lot about this virus, a few truths have held: Outside is better than inside, fewer people is better than more, and older people and those with underlying conditions are most vulnerable.

So, if your grandma is somewhere warm where all of your gatherings could be outside, and only you and a young, healthy sibling would be traveling, your risks are lower than if you're talking about a dozen people crowding into a Midwestern condo. 

Then, take your practical cap off and step back into your emotions. Are the risks you've assessed outweighed by your family's, and especially your grandmother's, mental and emotional health?

Maybe you worry you may not see her again, or perhaps the death of her husband has left her even more isolated and lonely — a state that alone is linked to serious health consequences, including a higher risk of early death. "You can't underestimate mental health," Ghosh said.

There are ways to pursue both safety and connection whether you stay or go

If you decide to go, for example, Ghosh recommends driving rather than flying, and staying in an AirBnB that you've reserved for 24 hours before you arrive to ensure no one has just been in the house. If you do stay with your grandmother, make sure you have your own bathroom, find ways to gather outside or with lots of ventilation, maintain a 6-foot distance, and wear masks.  

Getting a test before you go or when you arrive can't hurt, but don't let a positive give you a false sense of security, Ghosh said. The rapid tests can deliver false positives up to 40% of the time, and while the PCR tests are more, but not perfectly accurate, they can take up to seven days to process, giving you time to come into contact with the virus in between.

In other words, unless you're able to quarantine for 14 days at your destination, act like you're contagious the whole time. 

Giuseppe Lombardo / EyeEm / Getty Images

If you decide to stay home, seek ways to virtually connect with your grandmother and make the day special, like by asking her to teach all the grandchildren a family recipe over Zoom, and then all cooking and eating it "together." 

Are there other holiday traditions, like playing certain games, you can also recreate virtually? Is there somewhere your family would like to "visit" virtually? My family and I have enjoyed AirBnB's virtual experiences, which include everything from cooking classes with Michelin-starred chef to historic lessons about the French revolution. 

And don't forget the mail: flowers and a heartfelt letter are age-old feel-good tactics, pandemic or not.

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