By Judith Coche, PhD, Clinical Psychologist, Author, Teacher, Interpersonal Architect

“Use your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.” ~ Martin Seligman (2002, p. 263)

If fate crashes your work and requires you to rewrite your life plan, can you thrive again? How do you build needed resilience to manage personal disaster and live joyfully? Can you?

Losing the love of our life creates a sense of helplessness. Is it possible to thrive again or does permanent trauma create an impossibility to realize life dreams? This fundamental question was addressed on May 3 in a talk at The University of Pennsylvania about Option B. I had to hear it. It told my own story. Co-authors Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant talked openly about how Sheryl is rebuilding her life after her husband dropped dead suddenly in 2016 at age 48.

I know her story all too well. I lived it. A quarter of a century ago, I lost the man I intended to be the only love of my life to melanoma. He was 50. My husband, the father of my young daughter, my business partner, my coauthor, and my best friend were wrenched from my heart in the same moment. With gargantuan effort, I developed resilience and have been able to thrive again. But at first it felt like a cannonball shot through my center, creating a bloody and gaping hole. As I listened to Sheryl tell us of the horror of her loss, I wanted to reach out, to hug her, to tell her that I completely understand. I was there. And I felt deep admiration for her chutzpah in writing her story and starting a family foundation for others needing help building resilience skills.

Drs. Erich and Judith Coche, 1989. Photo courtesy of Dr. Judith Coche

Years ago, Dr. Martin Seligman and I both attended Penn Psychiatry faculty cocktail parties. Drink in hand we would agree that our field needed research on living life positively. Marty provided it by starting the field of positive psychology. I immediately highlighted his work. It became part of all psychotherapy for clients. Little could I know that, in 1992, I would need these trauma recovery skills myself to rebound after the death of my own young husband.

A multi-lingual, European psychology student named Erich Henry Ernst Coche, knocked my socks off when I was nearly 25. He chose Jefferson Medical College, where I worked, as the site of his German merit scholarship. Life would never be boring again: Erich danced a mean jitterbug. He and I sang Bach’s rounds a Capella for pure joy. His charm lit up the rooms he entered. After we married, he whisked me off to Europe, and became my prince charming. For nearly 25 years, we sang, danced, lived, loved, taught, practiced psychology, and parented together. I felt like a living example of Disney’s happily ever after. But occasionally I would have nightmares about Erich dying young. It was unimaginable and terrifying. This could not ever happen. But it did. Melanoma took Erich in 8 months. My world was plundered. Like Sheryl, I needed a crash survival course and I needed it fast. I resolved that Nothing would ruin my beautiful daughter’s life. I clung to my career, a familiar beacon in a very dark sea. And I resolved that somehow I would to learn to date and to build a new family for both of us if I could But how? I am an extroverted introvert: I am outgoing, but careful of whom I fall in love with.

To develop Option B, Sheryl and I both needed to avoid three barriers to recovering from tragedy. Marty Seligman wrote about the three P’s that keep us from recovery (reference):

  1. Personalizing: I felt responsible for allowing Erich to go on his sailboat without sun tan lotion. Perhaps we could have prevented his death? But I was not at fault.
  2. Pervasiveness: At first Erich’s death overtook all areas of my life . With time and wrenching effort, I learned to contain the loss and to grow from it.
  3. Permanence: Until I met John, I felt permanently disabled forever. But after three years of growth, I altered my plan. Life is now full, rich and complete.

To create my own Option B I had to listen to my own wisdom:

  1. I gave myself three years to grieve, to date, and to grow. As luck had it, I met John Edward Anderson and married him 9 days short of three years after Erich Died. The stepfamily we created became central in my Option B.
  2. I have lost my innocence. Happy endings do exist, but require skill, effort and self-discipline.
  3. The struggle to create Option B brings with it the wisdom of appreciation for every day that we live to laugh and to love. Humans are wired for resilience but need skill training. In my dark years, I gobbled down philosophy and psychology and became determined to devote my skills to recreating joy.

As I look back on the struggle that produced my life, I fully embrace the sentiment Adam Grant expressed in a personal email to me after the Penn talk on May 4, 2017, Adam wrote, “Here’s to kicking the hell out of Option B!”

Indeed, nothing feels more important!

Dr. Judith Coche is an Interpersonal Architect who helps clients optimize the space between them so that they can thrive. Founder and Director of The Coche Center, LLC, she has dedicated her career to transforming lives for individuals, couples, and families with children, adolescents and adults.

As a Clinical Supervisor in both group and family psychotherapy she has mentored hundreds of colleagues. Currently Clinical Professor at Perelman Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania, she combines a B.A.. in Sociology, and M.A. in Psychology, and a Ph.D. in Human Development.

She has been awarded Diplomat status in Clinical Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology. The author of 3 academic texts, 7 workbooks and a running newspaper column for 9 years, her work has been featured in the New York Times, TedX, and in national media. Her vision since 1978 has been to bring the best of mental health to the public.

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