DNA-Onset Grief: When DNA results change your life

Updated: Apr 3

For me, having that hush-hush secret family story confirmed - that I was not biologically a Mashburn - was traumatic. Until the DNA test results, there had been a sliver of hope that my mean uncle who spilled the beans to me was wrong, that he had lied. When I looked at my DNA matches and saw not one Mashburn relative, the reality of the truth slowly sank in, and in that instant, everything changed. Really. Life changed. My experience was very much like the 7 stages of grief we experience when we lose a loved one. I lost my daddy when he died of pancreatic cancer when I was 12, and I lost him again when I found out he was not biologically my daddy. So this is my story about the 7 stages of DNA Onset Grief:

  1. Shock or Disbelief

  2. Denial

  3. Anger

  4. Bargaining

  5. Guilt

  6. Depression

  7. Acceptance and Hope

In 1989, several months after my uncle gave me the name of my biological father, I decided to contact this man. I wanted the truth. I did not want to believe my uncle. I was successful in locating him, and he and I met at McDonalds in the town where he lived all of his 70 years (at that time) and where I'd also grown up. On the phone prior to the meeting when I was firm for a response to my reason for calling, he had unwillingly confessed there was a possibility I was his daughter. At the meeting, it was very clear to me that he was not interested in a relationship of any sort. He had his family. Neither of us felt an emotional connection. We were strangers. At one point when I pushed for details about how it happened, he said, "It's better not to speak ill of the dead." He meant my mother who was dead. What the heck did he mean, though? Did he believe it was all my mother's fault? I didn't even have the presence of mind to challenge or question his words. To this day, I have no idea what he meant, but I still wonder. I left that day and cried for the next 4 hours while I drove home. The tears were not about his lack of compassion or our lack of emotional connection. It was entirely about the loss of my daddy - again - and the crumbling of the entire foundation of my life and my identity. I was invested in that identity. The response to the situation was this powerful.

The denial stage happened after this meeting. There were times during those years following the meeting that I forgot his name. It seems ludicrous that I would do this. I had to make myself try to remember his name. I have no idea what this coping mechanism is called, but surely it was one. I filed his name way back into a file folder in the recesses of my mind and covered it up with other files of information I deemed more important. His surname became very hard for me to remember. I could sometimes remember his first name if I struggled but not his surname. There was something vague about the reality of it. The shock and disbelief stages were fuzzy for me, and I handled them by not dealing at all with this uncomfortable situation.

The anger stage was powerful and productive. It began with the results of the DNA test. I was angry with my mother, with this man, with the entire lie. I had loads of paternal DNA matches to different generations. They were easy to identify. I identified them all. I wanted to scream at my mother and ask her why she didn't tell me. Understandably, these are not situations that are young child-appropriate at any time - discussing a parent's illicit affair with a co worker. Did my daddy know? How could he not have known? They were childless for 10 years before I was born and then had no more children. My mother was a precise record keeper and kept all of her records. I poured through them all trying to find clues. I looked at all of her photos again to see if the man was in a photo. He wasn't. I looked at her W2 from 1953 when she would have been pregnant. She didn't work much that year. I learned she had probably known this man all of her life. In 1940, his family lived next door to my mother's grandfather. They grew up together and worked at the same textile mill together. He was a supervisor. She was just a worker. I pondered whether or not it might have been rape. It surely was not. I tried to give her an excuse but was unable to find one. It just happened. Two adults made a decision, and here I am. We were all left to deal with their decision. It sucked.

When I moved back to my hometown in 2007, I checked to see if he was still living. He had died in 2004, 15 years after we'd met. I made the decision not to do anything or approach anyone with my story while his wife was alive. So I waited to contact my half siblings.

All people who find themselves in this situation want to be accepted by the family they've found. Unfortunately, acceptance does not always happen. Even though I am nearing 70 and my half siblings are older, some of us (at our ages) cannot accept that humans make mistakes and that parents are not perfect. The bargaining phase happened in conjunction with the rejection from my half siblings. The half brother I first contacted did not believe me. His father was a church deacon and he believed his father never would have betrayed his mother. This brother went to the church to find out the baptism date of his father - to be sure it was before I was conceived. It was not. It was the year after my birth. He demanded to know what I wanted. I tried to be understanding. I wanted him to DNA test. He did, though not through a commercial DNA testing site. He was not satisfied the test was accurate because his family doctor friend had said these tests were sometimes faulty. I understand some of these early tests indeed were faulty. The 89% possibility that we were half siblings was unconvincing to him. Overall, this half brother was not good at dealing with the idea of an imperfect parent. In my mind, I wanted all of us to be happy about a new sibling. It was too much to ask.

In contrast, the second half brother I met was wonderful. He demanded to meet me. He told me he knew I was telling the truth, because I looked like my grandmother. Growing up I was always cognizant of the fact that I did not look like anyone in my family. The differences were obvious to me. When this brother provided photos of my biological father's mother, I finally knew who I looked like. Regardless of how hard this brother fought to have me meet the rest of the family, the other two half brothers objected. They threatened him with banishment from their families. They would never speak to him again, they said. I felt guilty I had caused them so much grief and heartache by telling them my story and who I was. Realistically, none of this was my fault but it didn't feel that way. I had brought this nasty little secret to light, and these brothers were not having their father's good Christian name smeared. None of these sibling relationships were worth pursuing when I was the only one who wanted a relationship. So after a time, I simply walked away and forgot it. I purposefully lost contact.

My walking away did not thwart the depression that followed. It became so overwhelming that I had to see a professional to talk about it. We did the usual things. None of them helped. I just worked my way through it with help from some mild medication. It was relatively short-lived and once it was over, I felt like I was emotionally OK.

I have 5 half siblings - 3 who know I exist and two, including a half sister, who do not know any of this. I sometimes wonder how my mother, biological father, and the others involved in this felt (up there) when I found out. They are the ones who created this mess, and they left their children to deal with it and try to resolve it in some way. Resolution does not always come with warm fuzzies. Sometimes it's stark, difficult acceptance that situations cannot be changed unless everyone involved is willing to change them. At some point when we all pass to the other side, everyone will know the truth and we can deal with it then, perhaps in a more agreeable atmosphere where perceptions of human beings are more realistic. This is my hope.

© 2021 • Yvonne Mashburn Schmidt, The Georgia Genealogist, Inc., Vidalia, GA •  Georgia Research • Genetic Genealogy *  Military Repatriation • DNA AnalysisPhoto on Home page by Debby Hudson on Unsplash. Family photo on Contact page by jesse orrico on Unsplash. Annie's photo used courtesy Lucy Hale, Annie's descendant.