Brief explainer on a first versus second cousin

Brief explainer on a first versus second cousin

What’s the difference between a first cousin, a first cousin, once removed and a second cousin? I get this question a lot! I usually end up explaining it at least once during Thanksgiving dinner each year.

Cousins who share a set of grandparents because their parents are full siblings are first cousins.

Cousins who share one grandparent because their parents are half siblings are half-first-cousins.

Cousins who share a set of great-grandparents because their parents are first cousins and their grandparents are siblings are second cousins.

“Removed” comes in when the two people in questions are from different generations.

DNA Quest program increases available free DNA tests by 5,000

Nearly a year ago, the genealogy/DNA testing company MyHeritage announced the roll-out of a program they call DNA Quest. They asked me to be part of the volunteer advisory board for this project, a program aimed to take down the barrier of DNA test cost to searching adoptees and the birth family members searching for them. Last week at a genealogy conference called RootsTech, MyHeritage announced an extension of DNA Quest to provide free testing to an additional 5,000 participants. Share the news with family and friends who you think may be interested!

Support for spouses and significant others of those involved in a DNA surprise

I received an email recently from someone searching for support. Her email read:

“I found out three years ago that my husband has an adult daughter. She contacted him and they began what I refer to as their “lovefest”. I searched and searched for information about this. There’s plenty of support for adoptees and birth parents, but none for other family members.”

“Do you wish you’d never done a DNA test?” - Guest Post by Casey

Do you wish you'd never done a DNA test_.jpg

From Brianne: Today's post is written by a guest writer. I'll call her Casey. Casey shares with us her DNA surprise, a shocking realization about herself and her connection with family that unfolded over time. I applaud Casey for finding the courage to write down her story. Writing can be difficult, triggering, and healing.

I know many of you will relate to Casey, even if your story is somewhat different. If you'd like to see your #DNASurprise story shared here, reach out to me. You never know how your story might help another person who's in your same shoes.   

If you'd like to join a secret support group on Facebook for the DNA Surprise you've discovered about yourself or another person, send me a DM. I'll need to hear a summary of your situation make sure the group is a good fit, then you'll need to send me the email address you have associated with your Facebook account so I can add you.  

“Do you wish you’d never done a DNA test?”

A friend at work asked me this question recently. For the first time in months, I had to really think about my answer.

“No,” I said, realizing that I actually meant it. Earlier this year, that answer would have been unthinkable. But as the word came out of my mouth, I knew it was the truth.

I grew up as the daughter of a single mom. My father and my mother had divorced soon after a hasty marriage in college, and he was an absent parent. I was very close to my grandparents, my great grandmother, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins; while I felt the absence of a father in my life, I had plenty of family around. My father and I met in my teens and a somewhat cordial but strained relationship developed, then died out when I moved away to attend college. We rarely speak, and my half sister from his second marriage is a stranger.

My maternal grandparents had always been interested in family history and genealogy, and I grew up hearing stories of cleaning up old family cemeteries, road trips to old homesteads, and hours spent in archives researching our family tree. When I married and had my own child, my interest in finding my own family history was piqued, and I began researching and building my family tree. Finding documents, stories, and sometimes even photographs of ancestors made them come alive to me, and I loved putting together the stories of their births, marriages, babies, jobs, houses, and moves throughout the country. I felt connected to these people and deeply rooted in my family history.

I felt connected to these people and deeply rooted in my family history.

In 2014, consumer DNA tests were gaining popularity among genealogists. I saved up my money, waited for a sale, and spit into a tube, eagerly awaiting my results. They were pretty much what I expected—my ethnicity showed I was from Great Britain, Ireland, and Scotland, with some Scandinavian and a few other European areas thrown in. I had a list of people who shared my DNA, although I could actually place only a handful—my mother’s second cousin, a few third and fourth cousins on my mom’s side. I even had a couple of matches who seemed to share really distant ancestors on my father’s side. I knew, through my research, that some of my maternal grandmother’s ancestors had immigrated from Ireland, and my maternal grandfather’s ancestors were from Scotland by way of Northern Ireland. My father’s family had immigrated from Ireland in the 1700s. So I was Irish, Scottish, and English? Not a surprise.

As time passed, I got more DNA matches, but few were closely related, and even fewer were recognizable. I became active in genealogy forums on Facebook, and helped answer DNA and genealogy questions from “newbies.” Consumer DNA testing grew in popularity, and more matches rolled in every week. Although I’d done my DNA test on, I decided to upload my DNA test results to other, smaller sites to see my DNA matches there. I wanted to confirm some of my genealogical ancestor “guesses” and find new relatives.

As time passed, I got more DNA matches, but few were closely related, and even fewer were recognizable.

In January of 2018, I got a notification from one of those other sites. The “You have a new DNA match!” emails were pretty common, and the matches were so distantly related that I couldn’t figure out how we were connected. I ignored most of them, but for some reason, I opened this email. The match was a close one—this man and I shared DNA at the level of a half brother or uncle—and I didn’t recognize the name. At all. What?

My new DNA match didn’t match my maternal relatives, so he was clearly related to my father. I spent several hours trying to figure out how it was possible my father had been adopted, as he was the middle child of a happily married couple and he definitely resembled his parents and siblings. Or, I wondered, had my grandparents somehow given up a child (who was now around my father’s age) for adoption? Yes: I, a reasonably intelligent researcher, a person who sometimes helped others with their genealogy and DNA questions, went there. My only excuse is that when it’s your DNA surprise—your story—sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.

When it’s your DNA surprise—your story—sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.

To make a long story short: the match was my paternal uncle. My biological father was not who my mother (or I) always thought he was—he was a college friend of my mom’s, and this was a surprise to her as well as to me. We were both stunned, shocked, and I think we probably both felt like we were going to throw up when we finally were able to talk about it.

The family I’d always known as mine, wasn’t. Those ancestors I’d carefully researched and whose stories I’d cherished? Not mine. But the worst part was that my biological dad was deceased. I’d never get a chance to meet him—for closure, or curiosity, or any other reason. Door shut. End of story.

Over the next few months, I felt like my world had turned upside down. I felt’s hard to find out in your late 40s that you aren’t who you thought you were all of your life, and I didn’t take it well. I cried at inopportune moments, I wondered what I’d done to anger the Universe, and I grieved for that family I’d lost. Similarly, I found myself mourning the relationship with the man I’d always thought was my father, though it had been practically nonexistent for years. I’d always harbored a tiny hope that we’d fix it someday. Now, there was not even a biological link to tie us together when nothing else had.

I felt like my world had turned upside down.

But—and there’s usually a “but” in these stories, right? I have a living uncle, with a kind and accepting wife, who wants to meet me. I have an amazing brother who is about a year younger than me and is like me in so many ways. He makes me laugh, and challenges me, and inspires me to be a a good big sister and a better person overall. I wish we’d been able to know each other growing up, but I’m glad we do now.

Is the “surprise dad” thing still hard? Oh, yeah. There are days when I have trouble dealing with my emotions. I’ll suddenly think of my not-father’s parents and miss them—and wonder if they ever suspected. (I don't think so.) I’ll drive by a battlefield where a relative died and think of his sacrifice…and then remember he’s not my relative. I think about my not-father and our fractured relationship, and I feel sad and guilty. I think of the lost opportunities to know my biological family--especially my grandmother, who by all accounts was a wonderful lady--and all the years I missed out on knowing my brother. It hurts.

I’ve gained so much, though, and that’s why my answer to my friend’s question was “no.” I don’t regret doing the DNA test. I’m slowly developing relationships with my new family, and I’ll be meeting them for the first time this summer. I’m learning about my history and undiscovered ancestors. I’m adding their stories in my family tree to those of my former ancestors, who still hold a place in my heart even though we don’t share genes. I know the truth now, and while sometimes the truth is uncomfortable and scary and sad, it’s also important. I’m a different person now, I think—or maybe I’m the same person, just with different roots and a different family. Everything I thought about myself has been challenged, and it’s been hard. But I think things will be OK. I think I’ll be OK.

Thank you for sharing, Casey. I'm looking forward to hearing about part two of your story. Sending positive vibes to you as you prepare to meet some of your new family this summer! 

- Brianne

Taking a temporary blogging hiatus to celebrate a new family member

Hello, readers! I am so glad to see more of you visiting my blog and the Watershed DNA blog readership as a whole growing with each new post. I wanted to let you all know I'll be taking a hiatus from posting for a few months to focus on the addition of our new baby. By summertime, I hope to be back at the keyboard and already have some new post ideas in mind for when I return.

If you are a new reader, maybe you'd like to go back and review some of my past posts. I recently added a search box to the bottom of the page to make it easier to search the blog history based on topic. Scroll down to the bottom and try searching for terms of interest to you. I've tagged posts using these terms in the past:

  • 23andMe

  • ABC27

  • adoptees

  • adoption

  • advice

  • All of Us project

  • alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency

  • Alzheimer's

  • ancestry testing

  • anniversary

  • APOE

  • Are Your Parents Related?

  • Baltimore

  • Base Pair

  • blog

  • Bone Marrow Transplant

  • Carrier Screening

  • Chimera

  • Chimerism

  • classes

  • conference

  • consultations

  • consumer awareness

  • cousin couples

  • direct to consumer DNA

  • DIY

  • DNA

  • DNA Quest

  • Dr. Oz

  • DTC genetics

  • education

  • event

  • expertise

  • Family

  • Family Health History

  • family history

  • Finding Your Roots

  • GEDmatch

  • genealogy

  • genetic counseling

  • genetic counseling assistants

  • genetic counselor

  • Genetic Counselor Awareness

  • Genetic Genealogy

  • genetic testing resource

  • genetics

  • genomics

  • gift

  • grandparents

  • GRIP

  • guest blogger

  • Health

  • helping

  • Home DNA Test

  • information

  • infosheet

  • interview

  • James Madison University

  • JMU

  • LHON

  • Maya Angelou

  • Media

  • medical genetics

  • mentoring

  • mitochondrial DNA


  • MyHeritage

  • news

  • NGS

  • NIH

  • NSGC

  • NSGC Gene Pool

  • nutrigenomics


  • online testing companies

  • Parkinson disease

  • PBS

  • Pedigree

  • Pittsburgh

  • poem

  • precision medicine

  • Presentation

  • Promethease

  • public policy

  • radio

  • raw data

  • regulations

  • research

  • resources

  • ROH

  • sharing

  • Small business

  • SNP

  • social media

  • speaking

  • STEM

  • Stem Cell Transplant

  • story

  • support

  • surprises

  • TapGenes

  • tele-genetics

  • telomeres

  • Third Party Sites

  • Tools

  • Twitter

  • unexpected results

  • utility

  • VaAGC

  • validity

  • variant

  • Video

  • Virginia

  • VOUS

  • VUS

  • Watershed DNA

  • Webinar

  • websites

  • WES

  • whole exome sequencing

  • writing

  • YouTube

Best wishes for the rest of the winter and blessings for a mild springtime!

5 Tips for Gathering Family Health History

January 1st gives us a reason pause to think about what we’d like to do differently in the upcoming year. Health is a focus of the resolutions for many people, and the family health history is an important tool. You will be surprised to find out how much your family elders know and are willing to share when given the opportunity!

Here are five tips for making the most of your family health history:


1)  Ask elder family members for specifics about medical conditions that have affected family members. Include questions about how old a family member was when a condition developed and how the diagnosis was made.

2)  Explain your motivations for asking questions about medical history, and be sensitive, open, and gracious to any information shared. If you sense hesitation from a family member, you can always ask for health history later in a different way such as an email or letter.

3)  Utilize free online tools to collect and record the information. Two good options? and

4)  Share the information you discover with your doctor, and consider asking for a referral to a genetic counselor. GCs are trained to ask the right questions in order to determine increased risks, appropriate testing, and recommended health screenings.

5)  If family health information is limited due to adoption or a small family tree, consider pursuing hereditary information via other avenues. Speaking with a genetic counselor can help you discover more about your individual risk factors and options for genetic testing even if family history isn’t available.

The most important thing is to ask the questions about family health history, not how they get asked. The details you discover might not only benefit you and your children, it can help other relatives as well. Wishing you a happy and healthy 2017!