by Grace Silverwood
An artist who lives in the U.K., Grace was a penpal of Don Dillbeck’s for many years before his execution in February of this year.
On 23rd February 2023, at around 6pm, Donald Dillbeck walked into a room he knew he wouldn’t be leaving alive. Did he feel scared? Probably, but I don’t think he would have been as scared as the rest of us would have been in that situation. For even though the battle he fought to stay alive for so long was lost, I believe he felt that a new adventure was about to begin for him, one where his spirit would be finally free from not only his body, but also the crimes and labels attached to him.
On that day I lost my friend.
I met Don through an organization called “Human Writes,” which is an organization in the UK that puts inmates on death row in contact with penpals. I was going through the motions of a huge loss at the time and was feeling the infinite loneliness that comes after the fallout of a death. I started writing to Don, as I thought that I was connecting with someone who felt just as disconnected with society and alone as I was and that I would be helping him. I quickly found that with Don this was not the case, even though Don was in a jail cell and had very limited physical contact with people. He once told me his nearest window was four meters away from his cell.
He wrote, “There is absolutely nothing stopping me from reaching people through letters and that’s exactly why I write, it’s my passion for writing.”
That’s not to say we didn’t have anything in common. We both enjoyed nature and felt we could connect with it, even though Don physically was inside a jail cell, his spirit was free to travel wherever he wanted to go. I would send him photos of my travels and some he would use as screensavers on his tablet. Don was one of the kindest and most inquisitive souls I have ever met and wanted to understand as much of this world as he could. We were both big fans of the songs by Led Zeppelin too.
We also quickly found that we were both survivors of child abuse. Even though we were both grown adults, we still hurt deep down inside; our inner children were hurt, some might say, and they both wanted to be heard and acknowledged for what others had done to them. Little Don and Little Grace were still present inside and angry, very angry. They both wanted something more than society had given them: justice.
Don wrote, “I’ll tell you a story of my childhood…” When he finished, I could feel him so close like he was sitting next to me. He then said, “Can you imagine the silent rage this caused?”
This “silent rage” soon rose to the surface, like thermite, as it burned brightly, fiercely and that it would not stop until it went too far and became criminal acts that hurt people.
“This did have a bearing on my crimes because whenever I felt trapped, I exploded in a destructive way.”
Like ripples in an ocean, this “destructive way,” this hurt, will be there, somewhere, for a long time to come. Even after the cause of these crimes, Don was put to death. The silent rage that was put into Don as a child, that he had carried, is now carried by others he hurt in his lifetime through his crimes.
He didn’t want this to happen to me, and over the period of 30 years that Don was on death row, he learned to manage his emotions in a much healthier way.
“I used to be real bad about burying all my inner pain and suffered in silent desperation. Today, ABSOLUTELY NOT!”
He taught me that our inner child must be heard and taken care of finally; that only we could do this, no one else. He also showed me that all emotions were part of our head, and it’s best to live in our hearts.
“When I say heart, I’m not referring to being emotional. Emotions are basically part of the mind, but I’m referring to being fully aware of my senses.”
Don by this point also had learned to manage his anger, to release in a safe and quiet way that would hurt no one anymore.
“Every morning, I do 2,000 push ups and this drains all those frustrations, etc.”
And he too had a very interesting suggestion for me to try. I have tried this and highly recommend it to others.
“Whatever you do DO NOT BURY IT! When you are alone out in the country in your car pull over and scream with all your might. I’m not talking about no wimpy sissy scream, but one that digs way down in your gut and just let it roar. Afterwards you may want to cry and if so, let it flow without stopping until you let it all out.”
Sometimes the truth is plain to see and is right in front of us. We just filter it out of our lives until one day someone has to point things out and Don did this with my toxic and abusive family, who with his brutal honesty and help I am now free from. I feel free from something, lighter, a dark cloud that had loomed over me for so long I didn’t realize it was there, has now drifted away.
“I’ve learned that if I write with my heart, it’s not my concern what the person gets out of it but I just allow them the opportunity to see things differently and let what I write speak for itself.”
I once saw life in monochrome. But through the friendship shared with Don over five years, I don’t feel this anymore. I have come to conclude that life is not black and white. We, as people, as human beings, are not as good or bad as we think or want others to be. We all have done terrible things in our past, we have all hurt people, some worse than others. While some, like Don, have been served what society sees as justice, many have not and never will.
I believe Don’s legacy is not just someone who caused great harm to a few, but also someone who helped countless others and steered them onto a better path, including me. So, while the ripples of hurt will outlive Don in some, there are also ripples of kindness that he gave to countless more in all the friends and people he has encountered since he was put on death row.
We, as his friends, carry this gift of kindness, to live in our hearts and not our heads, so we can use it to bless others within our everyday lives, and then maybe one day it will outshine all the darkness in this world.