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Guilt Trips And Withholding Grandkids: How People Convinced Loved Ones To Get A Vaccine

“I told him he wouldn’t be invited to our wedding, which we had rescheduled three times,” said one person. “He’s the groom.”

Posted on April 29, 2021, at 10:03 a.m. ET

Kiersten Essenpreis for BuzzFeed News

Every day for the last month or so, roughly 2 million to 3 million coronavirus vaccines have been injected into arms across the United States. And with each shot, with each vaccine selfie posted to social media, the eventual end of the pandemic inches ever closer.

As the vaccine rollout has improved, more than 140 million Americans have now received at least one dose. But in parts of the country, officials have slowly shifted their focus from issues of supply to issues of demand. In some states where demand for a shot is flattening, those in charge of the rollout are now doing everything they can to try to convince the vaccine holdouts. That has included enlisting trusted local doctors and church pastors as well as producing a star-studded TV special. But, for many people, conversations with friends and family members are the most influential method.

BuzzFeed News asked readers to share their experiences convincing wary loved ones to sign up for a COVID-19 shot. We received almost 170 responses (including only two from anti-vaccine trolls!) from people who opened up about deeply personal and emotional conversations they had with family members and friends. In subsequent interviews, respondents said they shared scientific evidence that the vaccines authorized in the US are overwhelmingly safe and effective. They tried listening in good faith to people’s fears and concerns and responding in kind. They tried debunking the misinformation that was spreading on social media.

But then they got creative — and it worked.

"You get to see the kids if you’re vaccinated; you don’t get to see them if you’re not vaccinated."

One of the most common tactics employed by readers was also one of the harshest: withholding grandchildren. Roughly a dozen said that either they or their siblings had threatened to keep their parents from seeing their grandchildren unless they were vaccinated first.

“He wasn’t going to listen to any arguments about anything else,” said Paloma Rodriguez, a 37-year-old in Miami whose sister in New Jersey wouldn’t let their unvaccinated 66-year-old father see his twin 5-year-old grandkids. “I think it’s just easier to understand: You get to see the kids if you’re vaccinated; you don’t get to see them if you’re not vaccinated. There’s no back-and-forth.”

Because children under 16 have not yet been authorized to receive a vaccine, Rodriguez believes grandparents might be more sympathetic to the notion of grandkids’ safety. After all, it worked on her dad. Following a year of only talking to his grandkids on FaceTime, he is now vaccinated and eagerly planning a trip to see them.

Liz Alvarez, a 30-year-old in Culver City, California, who is 15 weeks pregnant, said her parents and parents-in-law both decided to get their doses to avoid being excluded from meeting their first grandchild. “I think it can be a powerful tool because it really goes down to people’s beliefs, and maybe those beliefs aren’t as cemented as they thought,” she said. “Their love for their children might override whatever else they’re thinking.”

But it isn’t just about cutting off access to grandchildren. Several readers said they would refuse to visit loved ones until they were all vaccinated.

“The easiest route to get my family to be safe was to reason with their heart instead of their head.”

Anthony, a 36-year-old in Midvale, Utah, told his family he wouldn’t feel safe flying to see them in New York; if he were asymptomatic, he would risk infecting them. He said he used emotions rather than rationality to frame his argument because that would resonate with their conservative politics. “The easiest route to get my family to be safe was to reason with their heart instead of their head,” said Anthony, who asked only to be identified by his first name so as not to spotlight his family. “It’s the science stuff they get lost in. They don’t care about that. It’s more of a feeling for them.”

For some readers, potentially missing a big family event like a wedding or funeral was the straw that broke the vaccine-skeptic camel’s back. Kate Wasson, a 20-year-old set to graduate from New Jersey’s Seton Hall University, said she and her mother gently made it clear to her 77-year-old grandfather in Las Vegas that being vaccinated was a prerequisite for attending her May 20 ceremony. “Given this was such a big deal and it was really important to me and my family, I think he eventually realized he wanted to be a part of that, especially after a year of being quarantined from us,” Wasson said. “I think that’s why he caved.”

Indeed, for those on the other side of these familial threats, it isn’t always necessarily about being convinced. Sometimes it’s just about capitulating.

Simone Williams, a 30-year-old from Decatur, Georgia, said she didn’t feel compelled to get a vaccine; as a Black woman, she was skeptical in light of past medical experiments on Black people. But over a recent family dinner, her mother, a cancer survivor and caregiver to Williams’ grandmother, told her she would not be welcome in their home unless she got the shot. “I was really shocked that she was willing to not have me come to my childhood home,” Williams said. “She was really serious. I didn’t know if she would change the locks on me!”

“I was really shocked that she was willing to not have me come to my childhood home.”

Despite her reservations, Williams relented. The fear of not being able to see her family — and enjoy their cooking — won out. Her mother even helped her sign up for an appointment and drove her to a local football stadium where she received her vaccine. “The soldier asked how I was doing, and I jokingly told him that I was doing this under duress and if that is legal,” she said. “He heard the nervousness in my voice and just let me know that everything will be OK.”

As more and more people get vaccinated, a fear of being left behind or excluded might be motivating some family members, readers told us. Raine Vanderoef, 35, of Costa Mesa, California, said his mother had been reading about the vaccines but still wanted to take a wait-and-see approach. “When my mom got news that I got the first shot, I believe my dad kept making subtle comments at home like ‘Once we are vaccinated, Raine and I can go to a Dodgers game together’ or ‘Raine and I can go on a vacation and you’ll have to stay behind,’” Vanderoef said. ”I think those comments, even if they were made jokingly, really motivated her.”

Some readers framed their threats to avoid family members in medical terms, stressing that they or their loved one was immunocompromised and that having everyone in the family vaccinated would help protect them. Amelia Tuttle, a 31-year-old who lives outside of Augusta, Maine, has a younger sister in Oregon who is recovering from Hodgkin’s disease. “I had the conversation with my dad on Easter that if she were to come visit us, she couldn’t be around anyone who hadn’t had the vaccine,” Tuttle said. “He had a discussion with his doctor the next day and got the vaccine shortly after.”

She added, “He wouldn’t ever admit this, but I know that my sister is his favorite kid. I don’t take any offense to it! That’s part of it, though — him just wanting to see her and be reunited with her.”

“He realized he could’ve put our entire business in jeopardy. That was his breaking point.”

For others, getting vaccinated has a commercial implication. Amanda Costello, 27, runs an organic meat business in Tivoli in upstate New York with her 32-year-old fiancé. She’d jumped at the chance to receive her shots, but he’d been more wary after reading rumors on Facebook, Costello said. Over Easter, she made a delivery to a restaurant, staffers of which, she later found out, had just contracted COVID-19. When the restaurant closed, Costello and her fiancé lost a chunk of income — but because she’d been the one to make the delivery and was asymptomatic and vaccinated, she didn’t need to self-quarantine and risk losing even more money. Things would’ve been very different had her unvaccinated fiancé been the one to make the delivery. “He realized he could’ve put our entire business in jeopardy,” Costello said. “That was his breaking point. He got his second dose yesterday.”

Several people successfully convinced their loved ones that getting vaccinated was the fastest way that they — and society at large — could get back to “normal.” One reader said she told her cruise-loving parents that several major companies were requiring guests to be fully vaccinated before boarding their ocean liners, while another reader said her mother was ultimately swayed by the chance to return to in-person church services. Two readers said they’d threatened to cancel their upcoming summer vacations with their partners; they worried they wouldn’t be able to safely enjoy bars and restaurants and that it would be expensive if they were to contract COVID-19 abroad. One reader suspected her mother finally relented simply because she was sick of wearing a mask, and the CDC’s updated guidance — that vaccinated people don’t have to wear a mask indoors (around other vaccinated people) or outdoors — had won her over.

For those whose loved ones who have been ignoring the CDC’s advice during the pandemic, getting a vaccine also carried the positive side effect of ending family arguments. Laura, a 30-year-old in Glendale, California, who asked only to be identified by her first name, said her retired 70-year-old mother had been frequently visiting her former colleagues at the bank she used to work at. She’d also been soliciting hair salons and “speakeasy” nail salons that were secretly defying shutdown orders. This led to some heated arguments between the pair. “She was angry that I was working and because of that I got to go outside, and she felt that I was trying to jail her,” Laura said.

“I said, ‘If you get this shot, we will not fight anymore.’”

Finally, she made her mother a promise: If you get the vaccine, I’ll stop complaining about what you’re getting up to. “I said, ‘If you get this shot, we will not fight anymore, because I am tired of fighting.’”

Even though Laura’s mother is an anti-vaxxer, the promise worked. “Since she got the vaccine, we don’t really have fights anymore,” she said. “I said, ‘Go do what you want to do.’ I’ve kept my promise.”

In many cases, though, actions spoke louder than words. Several respondents said their loved ones’ fears were placated as others in the family received their doses. “What convinced [my mother] to get it is not exactly anything I told her but the simple act of seeing three of her children get vaccinated that put her at ease,” said Bryan Sarabia, a 19-year-old first-year journalism student at the University of Southern California.

“It seemed like [my grandparents] just wanted to hear about the experience from someone they knew and trusted,” said Emily Taylor, a 26-year-old teacher in Hawaii.

Those with medical or scientific backgrounds told BuzzFeed News they had to lead by example. Andrea Wolffing, a surgeon in Lebanon, New Hampshire, said she’d been able to convince a wary friend by drawing from her expertise. “I figured that the best example would be to get the vaccine myself and tell them everything I could behind my experience with any side effects, the science behind the vaccine, etc.,” Wolffing said.

Registered nurse Gail Chapin has been working 40-hour weeks testing employees at an Amazon warehouse in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she’s become quite fond of the staff “after becoming so intimately involved with their nasal passages.” She’s tried talking through how the vaccines were developed, sharing the history of vaccines in eradicating other diseases, and even bribing them with candy. But, she said, for the young men she works with, she often brings up research showing that those who contract COVID-19 are six times more likely to develop erectile dysfunction. “That gets them every time!” Chapin said.

In that vein, several of the answers we received from readers were especially creative and, well, just plain funny:

  • Erika, a 35-year-old in Springfield, Illinois, who asked that her last name not be published, convinced her hesitant husband by turning the tables around on him. “I told him he should not be worried about what’s in the vaccine, considering he drinks vodka weekly, vapes cannabis oil daily, and we eat out about once a week,” she said.

  • “Both my brother and I harassed and shamed [our father] into getting it,” said Alex Feygin, 38, of Richmond, Virginia. “The fact that we agreed — something my brother and I haven't done in literal decades — was enough to convince my father.”

  • Kelsey Norman, 27, of Atlanta, said her mother wanted to wait to see if vaccinated people “turned into zombies” despite the fact she was at high risk. “What convinced her was me getting my shot and then saying, ‘If I die from the vaccine, you won’t want to live anymore, so just get the shot for me,’” Norman said. “As we are so close, that was what worked.”

  • “I ultimately had to resort to playing on her motherly guilt and told her that I wasn’t going to get vaccinated until she did. She got her first dose about two weeks ago,” said John Fritchey, 57, of Chicago. “I’ll likely never tell her that I had already gotten vaccinated beforehand.”

Other readers went right for the emotional jugular, so to speak, and resorted to some particularly extreme measures to guilt their loved ones.

A 31-year-old woman in Toronto, who asked to remain anonymous, said her mother is a devout Catholic who grew up in rural India and was skeptical of the corporate biotech industry in North America. She told her mother that if she died from COVID-19 after refusing a vaccine, the young woman would refuse to organize a funeral or perform traditional death rites. “It was extremely heartbreaking for my mom to hear that — that this was something she was doing that was so bad that I wouldn’t do that for her made her understand how serious it was,” the woman said.

“Catholic guilt is the way my mom gets most of her stuff done, so I just used her own medicine, and that worked really well.” 

She added, “Catholic guilt is the way my mom gets most of her stuff done, so I just used her own medicine, and that worked really well.”

Others’ tactics were simpler but still played on the heartstrings. “I told him he wouldn’t be invited to our wedding, which we had rescheduled three times,” said Esther, a 30-year-old resident of Oakland. “He’s the groom.”

In the end, many readers said the most effective way to break through to those dear to them was much simpler: love.

Rox Laslett, a 32-year-old food designer based in the French city of Toulouse, said her mother, a homeopathist, has long avoided vaccines. But Laslett told her of a friend’s father’s death from COVID-19 and said how grief-stricken Laslett would be if her mother died. “She caved because we asked her to do it for us, to give her the opportunity to live maybe longer, to do it for love,” Laslett said. “That’s what we believed in.”

“Love is the most important thing right now,” she said. “Love is the best remedy.” ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.