In "Riders to the Sea" several reactions to the death of Michael take place when each of the individual characters learn of the tragedy and express their grief.
The first, which would most naturally occur, is for someone to become extremely pessimistic. The character Mauyra most obviously becomes pessimistic even while she is still not sure of the fate of her son. Even the idea of Bartley leaving to sell the horses makes her nervous, she’s afraid of losing her last son. Her pessimism is obvious when she says, "It’s hard set we’ll be surely the day you’re drownd’d with the rest. What way will I live and the girls with me, and I an old woman looking for the grave." Mauyra is completely destroyed by the deaths of the other men in her life. The death of her second to last son left her with an unabated pessimism that Bartley would die when he left to sell the horses. Mauyra’s angst is evident when she says, "He’s gone now, God spare us, and we’ll not see him again. He’s gone now, and when the black night is falling I’ll have no son left me in the world." Mauyra's pessimism is her way of keeping those around her from dying, perhaps some sense of guilt drives her emotions.
The least obvious reaction to a death is that of optimism. Though most people tend to seem optimistic, in all cases it is a false hope, a vocalized prayer in hopes that their worst fears will not come true. Cathleen has this same optimistic hope that so many hold onto for their dead loved ones. The optimistic impression given by Cathleen comes through most clearly when the girls set out to identify the clothing that the young priest had given to them. While going through the clothes they both look for tell...
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...in it but one man to work." Despite strong objections from his mother Bartley decides to leave, down playing any potential disaster of his brother’s by saying "How would it [Michael’s body] be washed up, and we after looking each day for nine days…?" Bartley leaves his poor mother behind, however, that would be his undoing. It is unfortunate that despite his best intentions he was not able to grieve for his brother. Denial was the only way that Bartley was able to cope with the loss of his brother.
As unfortunate an aspect of life as death is, it is still important for people to find some method by which they can deal with the feelings that they have when something so traumatic takes place to someone they love. Everyone’s coping method is different and works for them, however, in light of this play it would seem wise to listen to your mother on matters of grief.
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