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I Found a New Relative on Ancestry. Now What?

Finding new relatives may stir up complicated emotions.

Key points

  • Finding biological relatives can be exciting and frightening.
  • If you decide to connect, keep expectations reasonable.
  • Proceed with caution and sensitivity.

Dear Dr. G.,

I received an ancestry kit as a birthday gift from a friend who thought that it would be fun for me to learn more about my background. I was really excited about this and was hoping that maybe I would learn that I had a more interesting ethnic background than what I had been told. I found out a lot more than I expected. I learned that I have a half-sister on my father's side.

Neither of my parents are alive, so I am unable to get information about this from them. Relatives on my father's side say that they don't know anything about this. Naturally, I am very curious about this half-sister. I have a brother and always wanted a sister. I am excited about the idea of having a biological sister, but I am also scared about what she might be like and how she might react to the news of having a sister.

I am also very confused about the circumstances of this half-sister's existence in general. She is five years older than me. As far as I know, my father did not have a prior marriage. Did my father know that he had another child? If he did, was he keeping it a secret from my mother? Were he and my mother keeping it a secret from me and my older brother? Was my father a liar?

This raises questions not simply about my sister but also about my parents, especially my father. My brother and I have spoken about this situation and are thinking that my father probably didn't know about this child. He was a good and honest man, and we would like to believe that if he knew about this child, he would have told us about her. We doubt that he would have abandoned his child. At least, we hope that he wouldn't have.

My brother and I have decided to hire a genealogist to help us track down and identify this half-sister. We are concerned, though, about upending her life. We clearly share DNA with her, but she may not want to know that. Maybe, she has a good and loving father who might even think that he is her biological father. Our curiosity is overwhelming, and we would like to know who this woman is. What should we think about as we go through this process?

Please advise.

A Confused Daughter

Dear Daughter,

Thank you for writing to me. Over the past few years, I have worked with many individuals who have also learned about biological relatives of who they weren't aware. I am aware of how this is both confusing and interesting to you. Clearly, your half-sister had some interest in her background, or she would have been unlikely to submit her DNA. It is unclear whether or not your father knew about this daughter, but please be careful not to judge him based on this. He may or may not have known about her. Please hold on to your memory of your father as a good man. This will serve both you and your brother well.

You are concerned about reaching out to your sister and possibly upending the narrative of her life. This is both smart and sensitive. I think that the wisest course of action here is to reach out to her and assess how interested she is in making contact with you. Respect her wishes. It is very likely that she has received her DNA results and is aware of how much DNA you and she share. If you and your half-sister do decide to meet, please keep your expectations at a reasonable level. You may be biologically related, but you are nonetheless strangers. Do not try to force a relationship. Proceed slowly and respectfully. Do not overwhelm her with information that may be too much for her to handle.

My best advice is to proceed carefully and with sensitivity. Please get back to me and let me know how things work out.

Dr. G.

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