This is the final article in a 3-part series focusing on your DNA results:
- Disappointed with Your DNA Ethnicity Estimates?
- Solving Mysteries Using Your DNA Results
- How to Delicately Approach a New-Found Relative
My last post described how I identified one of my mother’s mysterious DNA relative matches and determined that she was likely a later-in-life daughter of my mother’s grandfather who had disappeared over one hundred years ago.
Like many French Canadians in the early 20th century, my great-grandparents had moved temporarily to the U.S. where my great-grandfather “Bob” worked as a carpenter. Around the time that my great-grandmother gave birth to their sixth child, Bob disappeared. She was left on her own with no money or income, no understanding of English, and six children under the age of seven to care for. It was a devastating blow. With help from her father, my great-grandmother managed to get herself and her children back to Québec where they lived in a one-room house. She eked out a living by taking in sewing and laundry. Two of her children died within four years and Bob was rarely, if ever, spoken of. The effects of his disappearance had long-lasting, multi-generational effects.
The DNA connection indicated that Bob had changed his name and later had several children with another woman. One of those children was my mother’s DNA match and appeared to be my mother’s half-aunt, despite being about the same age.
Although in this case, I was a part of the family that was “left behind”, I was far enough removed to have no feelings of anger or resentment towards his later descendants (we experienced the other side of this sort of coin, thanks to my paternal grandfather, which is another long story). Having been born long after her grandfather disappeared, my mother mostly felt incredibly curious about what happened to him. We hoped this new half-aunt might answer our questions, but recognized the revelations about his earlier life might come as a complete shock. And so I agonized over how to share the news with her. Here’s what I ended up doing:
Researched, Researched, Researched
I made sure I found everything I possibly could about my great-grandfather and her father to ensure I hadn’t made a mistake anywhere. This sort of news can be life-changing, so I wanted to make certain I’d covered all of my bases.
Checked With My Known Relatives First
Although I was more or less managing my mum’s account and I also matched with this new relative, I felt I had to have my mother’s blessing before contacting the new match. She also checked in with other cousins to make sure everyone felt comfortable opening lines of communication.
Considered Using an Intermediary
Because I was further removed from the connection, I didn’t feel the need to use an unrelated intermediary. However, for people connecting with close biological family (I’m thinking adoptees, half-siblings…), an intermediary can be incredibly valuable in breaking shocking news, particularly if it has to be done over the phone. It gives the new-found match space to absorb information without pressuring them to interact immediately with their new relative. It may make them feel more in control of the situation. I recently acted as intermediary for a client whose half-sister I’d found. It was a tough phone call as this sister knew nothing about her younger half-siblings and was utterly shocked by the news. I suspect if my client had cold-called her, the shock would have been far too overwhelming.
Carefully Crafted the Message
What you write depends on what type of relative you’re contacting, how closely they’re related, and the implications this new-found relationship might have. For connections that risk opening up deep or complex emotions, I generally follow these guidelines:
- Be respectful. This doesn’t mean just being polite in your communications. It also means respecting your new-found relative’s choices. This person might not want to open communication channels with you. They may not care about your shared ancestry. They might be going through a tough time in their life. So if they choose not to respond to your messages, don’t push. If they ask for time, give them time.
- Be concise and informative. Give this person enough information to understand your potential relationship. Include names, dates and locations of your relevant ancestors. If possible, give them access to view your family tree.
- Don’t present your relationship as fact. Provide enough information to explain your potential relationship, but don’t force them to accept the relationship. Use the word “might” a lot: “we might be related…” as opposed to “your father is my grandfather”. It gives this person some breathing room.
- Write more about yourself than about them. Share your ancestral information before you ask for theirs. “It looks as though we might be related through my great-grandparents, David Sumner and Rose Gardner, and I’m trying to determine how”. Don’t write “you’re Jane Smith and I found out that you were born in 1934 and your Dad was David Smith who had an illegitimate child…” Even if all of that’s true, it’s an invasive way of presenting all sorts of personal information, even if it’s publicly-available, and may immediately create a sense of fear or distrust.
- Don’t be intrusive. Don’t ask all sorts of personal questions. In your first message, you don’t need to resolve all of your questions and confirm relationships. You’re simply trying to open the doors of communication.
- Include a photograph. Photographs of your potential shared ancestor can be incredibly compelling and might persuade your new-found relative to respond. It’s not easy to attach a photograph through some of the DNA testing companies’ websites, so you may instead have to include a link to the photograph (you can link directly to the ancestor’s photograph if it’s on a publicly-visible tree or if you’ve it saved in the “cloud”).
- Sign off. Include your name – this keeps things personal and clarifies who you are in case you have a bizarre username. Also include your email address and possibly a phone number. Let them know you’d like to hear back: “I hope you’re well and I hope to hear from you – even if it’s only to say you’d rather not pursue any connections”. Messages sometimes don’t get through to recipients so you may want to add that if you don’t hear back within a certain time frame, you’ll assume they didn’t receive your message and you’ll try again through other avenues, such as reaching out to other family members or finding them through other means. This may motivate your new relative to respond to your first message and they’ll either say they don’t want to communicate (in which case, respect that) or they do.
So how did my mother’s new-found half-aunt react?
To our great relief, “Chantal” could not have been more welcoming in her response. She’d known nothing about her father’s previous name or family and was shocked to learn he’d abandoned a wife and children as she’d only known him as a very loving and devoted father and husband. She shared stories about him and was happy to learn about his earlier life. And she graciously sent what I’d been hoping for: photographs, which showed without a doubt that he was my great-grandfather. The whole experience brought a sense of closure to our family and while I’ll never understand why he abandoned my great-grandmother, I’m happy to know that there was goodness in him and that he treated his later family with love and loyalty.
However, not all welcomed the news. Some of Chantal’s siblings refused to believe their father could have done what he did and have not had any contact with us. I certainly can’t blame them for feeling this way, nor do I want to try and force the idea on them. Perhaps in time, they’ll reach out…
The range of emotions in these sorts of cases and particularly for closer relationships, is extreme and difficult to predict. Even if your new-found relative is a parent or uncle or sibling, they are strangers and we have no idea what they’re going through at the time we contact them, nor do we often know the reasons for the split in the family. The mere mention of a particular relative’s name may cause extreme anxiety and so our approach needs to be as gentle, non-judgmental, and as patient as possible.
Some More Useful Articles
There are loads of resources available out there to help guide you in connecting with new-found family – a few of my favourites are below. As always, please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or stories to share (everything stays confidential).
- Family Tree’s article: Tips for Contacting your Family History DNA Matches, which includes a sample letter.
- Ancestry’s post: Contacting DNA Matches: Get More Responses With These Pro Tips
- Legacy Tree Genealogists’s article: DNA Surprises and Your Family Tree