How surprised Utahns cope with startling DNA results and brand-new family

Peter Salm sits down at the kitchen table with two of his daughers, Jackie (left) and Courtney (right). (KUTV)

DNA testing boomed in 2017, leading to more people finding previously unknown family members. For some, these discoveries are earth-shattering.

Genetic genealogists and co-founders Emily Ripper and Kayla Branch told 2News that reactions commonly start with denial and fear. People are particularly afraid of being rejected by their new biological family, they told 2News, which is why their organizations and others have started online support group to help people cope with DNA surprises.

One Family's Surprise: A Sister They Never Knew

The Salm family, based in West Valley City, experienced a DNA discovery this February.

"I had done the test and I was waiting for it for a few days," says Kearns resident Courtney Rose, who never knew her father.

She used 23andMe to find her ancestry results and then got a notification for having a half sister.

"I sent a screenshot of it to my husband," she says. "He wrote back and said, 'Hey I know Jackie.'"

Rose's husband had coincidentally worked with Jackie Sells, and reached out to her via Facebook.

He told Jackie his wife might be related to her, and asked her to verify through 23andMe. He said his wife never knew her dad and was looking for him.

"I pulled out my app, turned it on, and looked, and it said, 'Half sister,'" says Sells.

Sells and Rose's father, Peter Salm, had no idea he fathered a child 38 years ago.

That was before he met his current wife, with whom he had three more daughters.

"I said, 'You're joking, right?'" he says. "You're kind of in a cloud," Salm explains.

You're just going 50 different places at the same time, and you're having a hard time just understanding what just happened. It's just the strangest thing.

Finding Support Online

A DNA testing boom in 2017 led to a wave of surprises about biological family members and, subsequently, the launch of a new kind of online support group.

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2News spoke to two genetic genealogists, Emily Ripper and Kayla Branch.

They help people find family they might not have known about.

They also lead a large online support group for people coping with DNA discoveries.

"It's your identity. It's who you are. It's all you've known," says Ripper.

Identity Disruption and How to Process a DNA Discovery

Finding out you have a different father, or a child you didn't know about, causes what psychologists call identity disruption.

In other words, your understanding of who you are fundamentally changes.

"Initially, the questions are usually: Is this test right?," says Branch.

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"Then eventually this translates into something like, 'Well, help me find out what the truth is,'" she adds.

The next step is asking questions about how to approach your newly discovered biological family members.

"People are scared," Branch explains.

Ripper and Branch say, in their experience, DNA discoveries have a fifty-fifty chance of having a happy ending.

"Rejection is probably one of the hardest things you can go through alone," says Branch. "That's why support is so important."

Instead of just being in the therapist's office, that support system is online and worldwide.

Ripper says, 'We cry tears for the people we help all the time virtually over the computer and over phones and video conferencing.'

We have other people who have been through the same thing," explains Branch.

"It's not okay," she adds. "It's not something that you should be going through. But you are, and here we are to help you."

Unexpected parents, adult children, and their family members are sharing their experiences, which pays it forward to new DNA discoverers.

"It gives them so much hope to know that in two years, I can be just like her," Ripper says. "I can be okay with this."

How Family Works After a DNA Discovery

For Peter Salm and his daughters, that identity disruption wasn't much of a disruption at all.

"I feel like this has brought us closer together as sisters," says Jackie Sells. "Because, I mean, we were all close before Courtney was in our lives, but we brought Courtney in and it's almost like we flow better with communicating with each other."

"We all want to see each other constantly now," she adds. "It's almost like they became my best friends instead of my sisters. It was an interesting transition."

Where to Go for Support