When There’s a Surprise in DNA Results

DNA has led to incredible discoveries. The news and social media are filled with stories of adoptees finding biological family members and siblings being reunited after decades apart. But there’s another kind of discovery that isn’t talked about as often—surprises in the DNA results.

This is how one experienced genealogist discovered the truth about the dad who raised her and how that has impacted her life and the lives of the rest of her family.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 32

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 49 minutes.

Jenny Hawran is an experienced genealogist and blogs at Like Herding Cats. She took a DNA test about 3 years ago to add it to her genealogy toolkit and explore the ethnicity estimate. But the results weren’t quite what she expected.

After her brother tested, it became clear. Her brother was her half brother. The man who raised Jenny was not her biological father.

Jenny kept the news to herself for more than a year. Wanting to believe that the results were wrong, she had more family members test… all of which came back with the same conclusion.

By the time of this discovery, Jenny’s Dad (the man who raised her) had already passed away. This discovery renewed the grieving process. “It was like he died all over again.”

“It’s an identity thing.”

Nothing can truly prepare you for discovering something like this, especially when it is completely unexpected.

Jenny said that some well-meaning friends have said to her that it doesn’t really change anything. Jenny contends that it does. “It’s an identity thing.”

Discoveries like this affect not only the person who took test, but also affects the entire family. Jenny’s four siblings had varying reactions and are themselves still processing what it all means.

When You Have Unexpected DNA Results

Jenny said that during this process, she has made contact with others who have had unexpected discoveries. Journaling, at the suggestion of Bill Griffeth, author of The Stranger in My Genes, has also helped. There are even Facebook groups for people who have found themselves in this situation.

It’s a process. When she made this discovery, Jenny didn’t think it would be possible to ever be able to talk about it. But with the support of her husband and daughters, and the counsel of Bill Griffeth and others, she is becoming more comfortable with her “new normal.” Her advice to others:

“You’re not going to get over it. You’re going to get through it.”

Advice for People Considering Taking a DNA Test

Jenny’s advice for people thinking about taking a DNA test is to think about why they’re taking it and to be aware that surprising results can happen.

This is a big part of informed consent, like Judy Russell discussed in a previous episode. We need to be up front with family members who we are asking to test and tell them about the possibility of surprises in the DNA results. We also need to be sensitive about these situations. It’s easy to say “nothing has changed,” but in fact, everything has.


Posted: August 2, 2019.

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  • What a fascinating story! My cousin had a similar DNA surprise when she began comparing her DNA with cousins. Something just didn’t add up, and when she realized that some of her cousins were not DNA matches, she had a new puzzle to put together. I sense that when it is a long-dead grandparent who turns out not to be who you thought was your relative, it’s not quite the shock as when it is a parent. Still, her genealogical work on her father has been quite an adventure, full of shocks. Learning about the DNA results was like the epilogue to the grand mystery story of her father’s parentage. ~Paula

  • This interview should be required listening for anyone considering taking a DNA test. I found it to be very informative and interesting, especially as it illustrated the impact of unexpected results on individuals beyond the immediate test subject. Thank you for sharing this story and highlighting the less-publicized outcomes of DNA testing.

  • My husband has had a similar situation happen – only it is a Half-Sister/Half Niece. He made contact with her and she wrote back wanting to share information. He wrote back a few sentences about how he certainly wanted to do that and a little about himself. He has not heard anything since. He is trying to be so very patient, even though he is totally confused if it is his mother’s or brother’s child.

    This podcast reminded us to be even more patient for she may be devastated about her heritage. The last thing we want to do is cause her pain.

    About the podcast, I was hoping she would share if she met her birth father’s family and how she was dealing with that situation. Maybe she did mention it and I missed it.

    Thank you for the wonderful podcast. I will be sure to share it with our Genealogy Computer Group.

    • At this time, she has not made contact with her biological father’s family.

      I think you’re right about being patient. These situations are emotional, and emotions take time to process.

  • It is about identity for sure! When I first tested I had an unexpected second cousin turn up. He didn’t answer me and didn’t have a tree to speak of but more distant cousins in his family (shared matches, now numbering in the 30s or 40s) enabled me to build a tree for him almost as extensive as mine. Because his grandparents were in the same place and time as mine, I concocted an explanation that his father was my mother’s half brother. My mom had passed by then, but I explained to her sister, who was fine with testing for me (she later said she knew–with three known daughters–if her father had had a son, the whole world would have known). My maternal aunt shared no DNA with the cousin nor his matches. It was on my father’s side! And it hit me then–I myself might not be who I thought I was! What a difference in how I viewed it!

    Acquiring an extra sibling, cousin etc–or for that matter, knowing ahead of time that you are adopted and searching for birth parents you already know exist–is one thing. The DNA may give happy or sad results, but it doesn’t change who you are. Finding out you are not who you thought you were is another level of devastation.

    My DNA story isn’t finished. Through further testing, I am now sure of my parents and siblings and pretty sure my grandparents are who I think. Which is a relief. But beyond that, I am still looking for the “missing link” or, as seems likely at this point, “missing links” between “Bob’s” tree and mine.

    I wish you well, Jenny. Remember, you are still the person your father raised, even if he didn’t share DNA with you. He sounds like a wonderful man and father! And you sound like a wonderful woman and daughter! I am sure he was and is proud of you.

  • Unfortunately there’s no surprising results in my tests, very hum-drum. It would have been interesting to get something not expected.

      • I had my sons DNA (specifically Y-DNA), taken to break thru a “brick wall” 4 generations back. I did get “the surprise” and even tho it isn’t my line I’m still upset and haven’t told all of my children. They have two paternal aunts, one the youngest of the family the other older by about 10 years. I’m considering asking both to do the test to confirm if it is 4 generations back or more recent. Don’t like the idea at all.

  • What a story, I found out I was adopted at age 24, the things Jenny described are also what happened to me, a difficult journey, one we never really get over, thank you Jenny for sharing

  • I was so moved by Jenny’s story. As I was driving home, I cried for her sadness in finding out that her father was not who she thought he was. I’m glad that she still refers to the man who raised her as her dad and this other man as her biological father, but I can only imagine the pain of having your entire identity turned upside down. I remember what got ime into genealogy: When my mother and I were passing through a rural county in Iowa, she mentioned that her father had been born there. I said, “Let’s stop in at the courthouse and see what we can find.” I searched and searched for her father but could only find a child born to her grandparents under a different first name for that date. I came out to the car and told her what I had found out, and she burst into tears. “Who am I?” she kept crying piteously. I told her that I would find out and that led me to this very engaging pastime known as genealogy. It turns out that her brother had done genealogy in the 19700s and had never told her this thing: Her father and his cousin were born the same day. The doctor switched the first names and that was what was entered into the courthouse record. Years later, they got the mix-up fixed. It would have been nice if Uncle Mac had let my mom know about this. He could have saved her much pain. Yet nothing on the scale of what Jenny has had to go through. My heart goes out to you, dear. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • I admire Jenny for being able to talk publicly about her experience. I empathize with her that there were no resources to help her understand the confusing test results, and that there were no support groups to turn to when she was dealing with the fallout of what the results actually meant for her.

    She is doing a huge service for others who have experienced the little-discussed harsh side of what DNA results can bring. In listening to Jenny’s difficult experience, listeners will know that they are not alone and that there are support groups they can turn to for help.

    It seems to me that Jenny is as much a DNA expert as Blaine Bettinger is, just on the flip side of it. While Blaine is an excellent and knowledgeable teacher on how to understand and use DNA results from a genealogy point of view, Jenny (and many others like her) are the unwilling experts on how to deal with DNA results that are unexpected, upsetting and life-changing. I’ve listened to many quality presentations by Blaine and other DNA experts, and they always caution us to be aware that test results can bring unexpected and upsetting results.They are doing so because they are responsible educators. But really, none of us really thinks that WE will be the one to discover a life-changing, non- parental event in our OWN immediate family… Jenny’s talk with you brought home that point to me very well.

    After listening to Jenny speak on your podcast recording, I see a definate need for people who have had similar DNA test experiences to speak in webinars, conferences, podcasts, blogs, etc., in order to make potential testers and already negatively-affected testors, aware of the harsher side of DNA testing. Thank you for doing this valuable podcast.