Grief and Mourning in Bhutan

Mourning is a deeply cultural process.

Westerns are somewhat restricted in their grieving. It’s ok to show some emotion but not to go overboard. People understand that there’s a grief process, but they also think it shouldn’t last too long. Even the somewhat-new “Celebration of Life” practices have a feeling of trying to put a positive spin on death, making it less sad. As a therapist, I would often try to peel away some of that restriction to have a more honest emotional experience.

For the Bhutanese, though, emotional restriction during mourning is far more intense and an intractable part of spiritual beliefs about death. They believe that crying and showing sadness will bring hardship to the deceased person’s soul as it transitions from this life to the next. You have to grieve without tears.

There’s a period of 49 days in between death and rebirth. For the first few of these days, the soul doesn’t realize he’s dead. He goes about his day at home and at work, not understanding why he’s being ignored. He feels sad. He accompanies family members at the puja’s (rituals), but he doesn’t know that he’s mourning for himself.

Finally, he will step in a puddle but won’t make a footprint. This is when he realizes he has died.

Then he sets off, trying to find his way through the hells of samsara. He wanders through the 8 cold hells (dung gyel) and the 8 hot hells (thsung gyel).

His path mirrors the behaviors and emotional state of the mourners. When people are happy and perform puja’s, the way becomes clear and bright. When people are sad and crying, the way is dark and stormy, with hailstones falling on his head.

On the 49th day after death, the soul visits the King of Death who decides how he will be reborn.

All throughout a person’s life, there is a god who sits on either shoulder. The god on the left puts a black coin in a bag every time you sin, and the good on the right shoulder puts a coin in a bag every time you do a good deed. For example, every time you walk around the chorten (always keeping the chorten to your right where the good god is), a coin is dropped in your bag of good deeds. The King of Death weighs one bag against the other to decide how you will be reborn.


Further reading:

Weiner, E. (2015, April 8). Bhutan’s dark secret to happiness [news article]. Retrieved from



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