Reflections on the life of
Dr. Steven M. Southwick
(1948-2022)

by Dr. Ann-Marie Neale

Board Secretary/Faculty Member

The Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy, Abilene, Texas, U.S.A.

April 30, 2022

On April 20, 2022, The Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy lost an honored colleague and friend with the death of Dr. Steven M. Southwick.  He was a lifetime member of our institute and active member of our board of directors. In 2019, Dr. Southwick was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award in grateful recognition of his promoting internationally the work of Viktor E. Frankl, MD, PhD. Even during his illness, Dr. Southwick was participating in Institute board meetings as recently as this past February. He was key-note speaker at the Twenty-second World Congress of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy held in Dallas, Texas. The theme of this 2019 World Congress was The Science of Finding Meaning in Life’s Greatest Challenges.  Dr. Southwick’s key-note address was dedicated to Dr. Robert Barnes who was President of our Institute at the time. In particular he reminded us of Dr. Bob’s (as he was affectionately known) resilience and courage in the face of the many physical health challenges related to polio which he had been living with since his teenage years. As it turns out, this was the last World Congress attended by Dr. Barnes who died in July of 2021. One memory that stands out for me from that World Congress occurred during my preparation to teach our Foundations of Logotherapy course at our pre-congress workshop. I was unable to bring hard copies of the course manual on the plane with me.  Without being asked, Steven picked up my manual and proceeded to walk over to the business center of the hotel where he printed out copies for my students. This may seem like a small gesture, but to me it is a wonderful example of Dr. Southwick’s kindness and generosity. In preparation for our Twenty-third World Congress entitled The Imperative of Finding Meaning and Purpose in a Troubled World which took place in October of 2021, Dr. Southwick along with fellow board members Dr. Len Wisneski and Dr. Patricia Starck held frequent meetings to formulate and consolidate the key points for their workshop entitled Clinical Burnout: The imperative need for rediscovering meaning and purpose.  

Dr. Southwick was the Glenn H. Greenberg Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, PTSD and Resilience at the Yale School of Medicine andthe Yale Child Study Center. He was also Medical Director Emeritus of the Clinical Neuroscience Division of the National Center for PTSD of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Dr. Southwick’s life-long professional commitment to understanding the importance of resilience when faced with stressful events led to studies of military veterans, 9/11 First Responders, U.S. Special Forces trainees, and prisoners of war.  His interest in the capacity for resilience was inspired in part by psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor E. Frankl.  Almost 25 years ago, Dr. Southwick and his colleagues at the Yale University-affiliated division of the Veterans Administration National Center for PTSD developed a treatment program for combat veterans with chronic PTSD that was based on Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy.  Dr. Southwick’s book Resilience: The science of mastering life’s challenges, second edition (2018), co-authored by his long-time collaborator and colleague, Dr. Dennis S. Charney remains the seminal book in the field of resilience and the neuroscience of PTSD. One of his goals was to see the publication of the book’s third edition and he was working diligently to make this happen up to the last days of his life. Dr. Cherney has assured us that this edition will be forthcoming sometime in the future. There are many references to Dr. Viktor Frankl in the book including the following:

Frankl referred to the capacity for finding meaning in adversity as ‘tragic optimism,” optimism in the face of human suffering, guilt, and even certain death. Tragic optimism encompasses the human potential to transform human suffering into human achievement and guilt into meaningful action. (p. 258)

Dr. Southwick came into this world and changed our lives for the better.  His kindness, compassion, and love touched all of us who were privileged to know him.  Rev. Shelly Emery-Holness, in her eulogy and prayer of thanksgiving, related that Dr. Southwick was “a man of great faith and integrity” who felt compelled to help veterans, especially Vietnam veterans who did not return home to accolades of thanks for their military service.  She shared the unfailing truth that Dr. Southwick “brought light to the cracks in those he served.” 

In sharing thoughts and memories about Dr. Southwick, fellow Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy Board Member, colleague, and friend, Dr. Len Wisneski, related that he was “an expert in resilience who was LIVING resilience. Steve WAS resilience.” As he ended his reflections, Dr. Wisneski echoed all of us who were blessed to know Dr. Steven Southwick: “He left full of love—expressing love.” As his colleague and long-time friend. Dr. John Krystal said, “One could not help but love Steve.” Dr. Dennis Charney shared the following: “He made me a better person.” Broadcast journalist, Linda Vester Greenberg, depicted Dr. Southwick’s life-long journey with a description that is evident to all who knew him: “He truly walked gently on this earth.” 

Dr. Southwick’s loving wife Bernadette related that years ago, when they were on an Outward-Bound experience, he wrote the following note to himself: “Life is short. Be glad of life (every moment) because it gives you the opportunity to WORK, to LOVE, and to look up at the STARS.”  May we all do our best every moment to remember Steven’s words, in particular to be glad of life in every moment, to love one another, and to look up at the shining stars that bring hope to our world.  Dr. Viktor Frankl in his much-revered book Man’s Search for Meaning reminds us that we discover meaning through love- both for and from others.  When reminiscing about his long-time friend and colleague, Dr. Dennis Charney quoted the following lyric from Bruce Springsteen’s Terry’s Song: “Love is a power greater than death.” Therefore, even as I grieve the earthly loss of my Logotherapy colleague and dear friend, Dr. Steven Southwick, I am consoled and comforted that he remains with us all in spirit because he was and is love.  He exemplifies my favorite Viktor Frankl quote, “Life has meaning to the last breath.” Dr. Steven M. Southwick is a beautiful example of Logotherapy Lived.

Contributions in Dr. Steven M. Southwick’s memory may be made to: Mount Sinai Prostate Cancer Research Center of Excellence (proceeds for research and fellowship in Dr. Southwick’s honor) and sent to: Ash Tewari, Department of Urology Ichan School of Medicine, One Gustave L. Levy Place, Box 1272, NY NY 10029, USA.

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