Grief as described through the ‘Twilight Zone: Five Characters In Search of an Exit’

The following is a guest post from Rufo Tolentino.

In the Twilight Zone episode Five Characters in Search of an Exit, an army Major wakes up in a room. There are no windows or doors. The ceiling is open, but he can’t tell what is above. As the story progresses we’re eventually introduced to four other characters that woke up under similar circumstances– a clown, hobo, ballet dancer, and bagpiper. None know where they are, or even who they are.


I sleep at my parent’s house once a week to keep my mom company. When I woke up there a few days ago, I had a similar feeling.

I still call it my parent’s house, even though my father is dead. He passed away January of last year. When my mom calls from the landline it still says ‘dad home’ on my phone. I can’t bring myself to change it.

I woke up in the master bedroom. Sometimes my mom sleeps there, but she’s occupied a different room for so long that it still feels like someone else’s bed. My father had COPD and coughed through the night long before he was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago.

Nearly a year later it’s still surreal to walk down the stairs and not smell coffee brewing. To see my dad’s chair empty, no morning paper turned to the crossword section. Sometimes I DON’T know who I am. Where I am.


As we’re introduced to the ballerina, she says, “Each of us woke up one moment and here we were in the darkness. We’re nameless things with no memory. No knowledge of what went before. No understanding of what is now. No knowledge of what will be.”

I knew the look in the ballet dancer’s eyes as she delivered that line. That’s what it’s like for me sometimes. I’ll wander through a room as if floating in a dream, or become lost in memory staring at old photographs. I’m detached from myself and my surroundings. I get lost in the sadness. I don’t feel like I have a purpose. I don’t understand what I’m for anymore.

I helped take care of my father for the past several years. My family and I took turns, everything else in our lives on hold. We’d shuttle him to appointments, monitor his health, and trick him into doing things he didn’t want to do like bathing, changing clothes or getting out of the house. We had meaning. Now I often feel like we’re like those strangers standing in an empty room. 

The Major, just waking for the first time as the story begins, is still deep in the denial stage of his grief. He eventually displays attributes of the other stages of the grief cycle, at one point unsure if he’s in a nightmare or in hell. The other characters likewise shift their perspective about their situation through the course of the story. The four others are adamant that the Major’s efforts are futile in the beginning. The clown goes so far as to call him an idiot. Eventually they allow themselves hope and start to help the Major in his efforts.  ..

The fact of the matter is, there is no right or wrong way to deal with grief. And there’s no way to tell how you’ll deal with it until you’re in the middle of it. Although all the characters are all at times hopeful and others hopeless, three of the main characters’ overall attitudes share distinct perspectives of how they deal with their pain.

The Major refuses to accept the situation:

We have a life that has been cut away from us. We’ve got to get it back. Each one of us.”

The ballet dancer is resolved to her fate with little hope that there’s anything else:

“Perhaps there are a lot of dungeons like this. Maybe we’ve just never heard of them before. Perhaps they’re for the unloved. Perhaps that’s who we are.” 


The clown also accepts his fate, but is more disinterested than defeatist:

“We’re here. Because we’re here. Because we’re here.”

I’ve been in therapy for about seven months now. I have been through the five stages of grief more than I care to count (or seven depending on whose description you subscribe to). I know the 12 steps of dealing with loss. On the 20th of January it will be a year since my father passed and I still find myself from time to time lost in a sea of depression. Other people’s descriptions of what my pain is supposed to look like and how I’m supposed to deal with it do not amount to a compass or a map. They’re a paddle, and sometimes I just paddle around in circles.

I don’t want anyone to think that means I’m being dismissive of grief counselling or reading material. It’s helpful to have a description of what it is you’re going through. A paddle is fine. So is paddling in circles, if that’s what you need.

Grief is different for everybody. There’s no map or compass to your pain because it’s your pain. That was the hardest thing about counselling and subsequent therapy for me to come to grips with. No one will give you answers. It’s not because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

Although a counselor or therapist can tell you what you’re going through, only you can decide how you’re going to deal with the situation. It may not have been healthy drinking entire bottles of Sailor Jerry in one sitting when I first tried to process my grief, but it’s what I needed at the time.


In the beginning there was fear. I feared that this pain was all I had left of him. I was scared that once the pain was gone, no memory of him would remain. Like the major, I awoke in the darkness with no idea where I was. Without my father, I didn’t know who I was either.  

I chose to use the Twilight Zone as a vehicle to describe my struggles with my father’s death because it reminds me of him. Old TV shows always do. There are tears in my eyes thinking about his laugh at an old Three’s Company episode, or Tom Bergeron hosted episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos. When I think of the Twilight Zone I think of the first episode I remember watching with him as an adult.

“Is that William Shatner?” he asked. Indeed it was (Nick of Time, Season 2, Episode 7).

In that way I am different from those in Five Characters in Search of an Exit. I have a distinct past, one that I will never get back again. That may sound depressing, and it certainly is.

But in it is also hope. Not hope that I will escape my grief, but hope that there’s something beyond it. Describing what my life is now that my dad’s gone hurts, but I think the scar tissue is deep enough that I’m not worried about that pain cutting to the bone anymore.  

It won’t be pretty. It can’t be. A large portion of my life is gone, along with someone I will always care deeply about. But I still have a life. And it can be anything I want it to be. I speculate about what my life will be, the way the characters in the episode speculate about what’s outside the walls of their little universe.

My therapist told me the grief gets easier with time. Nearly a year after my father’s death, I’m finally starting to believe him. As time goes on, I’ll begin to let the wounds heal. I understand that letting the pain of his loss go doesn’t mean letting go of his memory. I don’t know if I’ll continue to deal with is pain in a healthy way, but nearing the anniversary of his death I accept it as a possibility. As the clown says as the other characters speculate about their situation, “That’s the one thing we have an abundance of: possibilities. An infinite number of possibilities.”