Health

Life after a DNA shock: Uncovering more than you ever imagined – or wanted

8 Mins read

“I did not expect it. Didn’t even factor in that anything, anything would happen like this,” Jodee Prouse says.

A couple clicks and a sleek, white box containing cheek swabs and a return envelope will arrive on your doorstep. Only a few weeks later, you will open an email to find out whether your last name is, in fact, of Italian descent, or you might even find that your family immigrated from places you never imagined.

But what happens when that email reveals something you would rather not know? Or what about the times it shatters reality as you know it? 

The sun is beaming through the window as she greets me from the comfort of her home in Sylvan Lake, Alberta, a year since she received the message. Jodee runs her own bath and skincare line, and the day had started just like any other morning at the office. This was until her phone buzzed. 

“The minute I opened the email, I knew my dad wasn’t my dad,” she recounts. On the other end of the thread was a person who she never knew existed, yet apparently shared 25% of her DNA, making him her half-brother.

In Jodee’s 54 years, she had never had a doubt. But the age and location checked out. And, of course, there was the overwhelming match rate staring back at her. “DNA doesn’t lie,” she says, her beach blonde hair and manicured waves bouncing along as she shakes her head. Without warning, she had become one of a growing number of people whose lives are turned upside down by an unexpected test result. “During those first days, I cried harder than I’ve cried in my entire life.”

An empty swing is in focus. The backdrop is a green hill.

“It will bring tears to my eyes talking about it; that he will never know of me,” Becky says [Unsplash: Matthew Bornhorst]

Jodee’s biological father, it turned out, lived no more than 20 minutes away from where she grew up. “It is just unbelievable that we could have crossed paths,” she says, and her smile fades, if only for a second. She reminisces about all the car rides to Edmonton with her beloved grandparents, still getting used to the idea that they are not her genetic relatives.

“I would have passed that farm hundreds of times in my last 50 some years.” There. Just along the highway. This is the farm where her other family spent their days immersed in horses and rodeo. “The complete opposite of what my life was like.” 

She speaks openly about the hardships she faced growing up, and how she became estranged from several family members over the years. To this day, Jodee is not in contact with her mother. Meanwhile, the man she grew up believing was her father suffered from alcoholism until he lost his battle with cancer in 2018.

Before his death and their divorce, he had a child with her mother. A half-brother who Jodee grew close with and who taught her the meaning of unconditional love. But as time will have it, he also went on to suffer from addiction, until he took his life in 2015. A loss she is still learning to come to terms with. 

In light of the new information, Jodee found herself processing yet another loss. Her biological father had passed away only a year before the DNA match. Having both lost and gained a father in one day, Jodee had to grapple with what it means to mourn someone she had never met. “It is incredibly sad that I never met my real dad and that he never, I mean…” Her voice breaks. “It will bring tears to my eyes talking about it; that he will never know of me.” 

Living with this knowledge comes with a string of haunting “what ifs”. What if her half-brother had taken the DNA test sooner? What if her mother had been honest with her? After all, Jodee looked nothing like her siblings, so surely, she must have known? If only she had told her, what could have been?

Jodee stops herself. “We can wish for a whole bunch of things, but we don’t always get what we want or the answers we’re looking for,” she says. “It is sad, unfair, all the emotions. But at the end of the day, I can’t let that destroy me.” 

Co-founder of Adoption Network’s DNA Discovery support group, Becky Drinnen, says that Jodee’s situation is far from unique. There have been several cases within her group, where someone does a DNA test in their later years, only to discover that one or both parents who raised them are not who they believed them to be.

“At this point in their lives, the people who could give them the answers they so badly need, to understand who they are and where they come from, are dead.” Becky emphasises that these unanswered questions are particularly difficult to process. “We’ve had people in our group who have not been able to work for a time because of the emotions they work through when they make such an impactful discovery.” 

With this in mind, popular genealogy platform MyHeritage’s mission to “help you uncover more than you ever imagined” takes on a new meaning. On their blog, there are countless stories of happily-ever-after, but as both Jodee and Becky can testify, the reality is rarely as glossy.

“Most of the stories that make news have happy endings. These shows don’t give voice to the deep emotional impact of finding out you aren’t who you thought you were,” Becky says.

The Cleveland-based support group, therefore, aims to tackle the emotional aspects of DNA discovery. This includes people who find their parents relinquished a baby for adoption before they were born, people who discover they were a product of fertility fraud, and adoptees who work through contact and reunion after finding a biological parent, to name a few scenarios. 

“The common bond for each person who shows up is that they work through a deeply emotional process to understand the implications of what they have discovered on their identity, their family, their day-to-day life.” Sometimes this means integrating new relatives into their life or dealing with rejection from a newfound family, other times it involves learning that the people they find are not safe to connect with.

“As accepting as I am to this, it wasn’t something I needed, or even wanted.” 

Jodee

In Jodee’s case, she counts herself lucky despite the challenges. Since the discovery, the new family has welcomed her with open arms and her father’s side of the family treats her the same. It helps to know that while her mother might have kept this secret, at least she was not the product of an affair.

For the first time in years, Jodee also met with her mother to break the news, deciding to accept her decisions rather than ask questions. Somehow, Jodee got through it, and she thanks her 15 years of therapy for it. “Therapy really has saved my life. It has helped me see the bigger picture,” she says. 

According to her, life quality is found in the silver linings, and she will embrace whatever comes her way – including the DNA test that came with a decades-old secret and an extended family.

Besides, to Jodee, blood has never been thicker than water. “It hit me like a bolt of lightning, because I have been estranged, that family isn’t just the people you’re biologically connected to. It is more important how we treat each other, love, and nurture each other. Then, I was just accepting the news.”  

Looking back, Jodee has come a long way in her healing, but the story does not end there. While she is grateful for the brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles that have embraced her, she makes it clear that she was never searching for another family.

“As accepting as I am to this, it wasn’t something I needed, or even wanted.” Her sole intention when signing up for 23andMe, was to know more about her health. Meanwhile, her half-brother received the same DNA test wrapped in Christmas paper. Neither of them could expect this little DNA swab would change their lives.

“There are things that come up that can destroy families,” Jodee warns. “Let’s play this out a different way. Let’s say my mom and dad were still married and then we found this out. How would she explain this?” Jodee may be glad to know the truth, but she recognises the mental cost of discoveries like her own. “Where I live, it’s about $150 (£89) an hour for therapy and I’m blessed to be able to afford that. But a lot of people can’t. So where would they go when they’re struggling?”

Paula Nicolson, a psychologist who has written extensively about genealogy, suggests the platforms should offer online therapy to support their users. After all, one DNA kit is around £80 as a one-off fee, but the emotional toll of that purchase can be far more costly. 

A couple are holding hands against a soft white backdrop.
With the global genealogy market valued at $3 billion, Becky Drinnen believes there should be more accountability. [Unsplash: Priscilla Du Preez]

“If you discover you are not who you really thought you were, it can be overwhelming and that is why I do believe that a warning needs to be included,” Paula adds. As of now, Ancestry, MyHeritage, and 23andme provide little to no information about how to navigate the unexpected despite the obvious risks. Instead, the disclaimer is buried in the fine print.

For example, MyHeritage’s Terms and Conditions stipulate that by using the DNA services, you risk learning information “which may evoke strong emotions and has the potential to alter your life and worldview.” They also state that “once you obtain this information, the knowledge is irrevocable.”

Ancestry provides a similar, though more abstract, disclaimer in their Terms and Conditions: “You expressly agree to assume all risks associated with your use of the Services, and that Ancestry shall not be liable for any social, emotional, or legal consequences of such discoveries.” Notably, these warnings are nowhere to be found in the FAQs, message boards, or product descriptions. 

“I firmly believe that every single person who does a DNA test should have access to support when they receive test results,” Becky says. She suggests that genealogy platforms should not only offer a disclaimer and a list of resources, but also that employees should be trained to answer questions about unexpected discoveries and advise on “how to find an appropriate support group, a genetic genealogist, or a trauma informed therapist in their area.”

However, what Becky is describing is far from reality. When reaching out to the Ancestry team regarding the support options for victims of unexpected discoveries, there was not much to report. One Ancestry agent confirmed that “unfortunately we do not have any support groups”.

Instead, the only advice they could offer was to seek therapy, but they acknowledge that this is a “costly” option. The 23andMe support team’s response was even briefer. “I understand the importance of this but at the moment we don’t have these resources available.” Followed by: “I will pass your comment along so our specialists can consider it for future updates.”

This lack of sufficient resources is contrasted by the fact that the ancestry business is lucrative, with the global genealogy products and services market valued at $3 billion (£2.4 bn)in 2019 and estimated to almost triple by 2026. 

It is worth noting that for every fear, doubt, disappointment, shock and sorrow that follows an unexpected discovery, there is also joy, relief, excitement and gratitude towards the truth which is uncovered thanks to DNA testing. In that sense, genealogy is not inherently bad. In fact, it can be a powerful tool that brings people together.

If you ask Jodee, she will tell you that despite the challenges, she is now surrounded by even more love than she was before the discovery. However, the problem presents itself when people sign up to learn about their health or ethnicity origins, blissfully unaware that the package also comes with DNA matches that can reveal something you would rather not know. 

One little sample.

That is all it takes for your family and identity to unravel. It is impossible to know what might come to light after a DNA test, but at least for now, Jodee has made peace with her discovery.

“For my own health and happiness, I had to focus on what is best for my marriage, my husband, and my children. Since the news, we’ve continued living our life, surrounding ourselves with our family and friends, and we’re happy.”


Featured image by ed259 via Unsplash.

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