Colonial Lake Christmas Tree (copy)

The holiday season can be a lonely time for people who are grieving. File/Wade Spees/Staff

Donna Clark's husband Bob had always loved a Christmas teddy bear. The bear would read "The Night Before Christmas" if you squeezed its paw.

When it came to Christmas, Clark said her husband was like a big kid. Not too attached to the holiday herself, she decorated their home for years to delight him. She cooked him a ham, which he adored. Clark knew how much her husband loved the holiday, so she tried to make it festive.

"I guess I made sure that happened," she said.

For them, Clark said, Christmas was intimate, private and heartfelt. But this year, Clark has gotten rid of most of her Christmas decorations. She only put a wreath on her front door at a neighbor's urging. The festivities were more for Bob than they were for her, and now that he's gone, Christmas isn't the same.

Bob died in the hospital this summer after a long battle with cancer. Clark learned about his diagnosis on his birthday in April. Bob had kept it hidden from her for years. 

They had dated for about a dozen years before marrying in New Jersey in 2011. They moved to Summerville in 2014, and began a happy retirement. Now, Clark finds herself grieving instead, a highly personal process she said is made even more difficult because of the holidays.

Mental health experts have long known the holidays are a difficult time for those who are grieving, who have depression and who are going through a time of spiritual distress. Sue Heiney, a professor of nursing at the University of South Carolina, said normal grief is known to intensify during the holidays.

The cultural ideals surrounding the holiday can be frustrating and saddening for some, she said.

"You feel everything more intensely," said Heiney, who specializes in mental health. "Partly because we’re flooded with all of these sensations: the sights and smells that represent the holidays. We can’t escape it."

Heiney suggested considering which holiday traditions actually bring you joy and which are busy work. Though the holidays are supposed to be a completely selfless time, she said, such an expectation can be an intense amount of pressure. 

"It’s a season where we’re sort of being told to feel joyful and happy," said Rev. Adam Shoemaker of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. "If your reality doesn’t jive with that, it can be isolating."

St. Stephen's is one of a number of churches in the area holding a Blue Christmas service, which is geared toward grieving congregants. Shoemaker said this year will be the first time the church has offered such a service. 

It will be one of a number of services at churches in the Lowcountry that aim to address the emotional needs of their members. Shoemaker said he is new to the area this year but has been wanting to try out a Blue Christmas service for some time. Many of the services will be held on or near the winter solstice, Dec. 21, which is the longest night of the year. 

Rev. Art Gatewood of First Scots Presbyterian will be presiding over that church's Longest Night service. Gatewood said he remembers Elvis Presley's release of his song "Blue Christmas," a tune he said he only understood later in life. 

Gatewood said the goal of the service is to give congregants "spiritual handles" to navigate the holidays if they are having a difficult time. The struggles people are facing during the holidays can range from living apart from family to losing a loved one.

"It’s a tender time of the year," he said.

To address the grief, Heiney suggested creating new or altered traditions. She lights a candle every year for her husband, for example. Part of grief is recognizing that the pain will be there, no matter what, she said.

For Clark, the grief associated with her husband's unexpected death was horrible at first, then better, and now worse again as Christmas approaches. 

This year, she won't follow their same traditions, but she'll still be with family. She agreed to spend the holidays with her siblings in Florida. 

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.