To Connie Burnham, watching everyone rush around and prepare for the holidays feels like looking through a window.
"Everyone else on the other side of the glass seems to be having a good time," she said.
But for her, this Christmas is a struggle. It's her first Christmas without her sister, Nancy Zumbehl, who died in January a few days before turning 67.
"She's always been there," Burnham said. "She was like a second mom."
She was also the one who hosted the family Christmas gathering. On the Saturday before Christmas, the relatives went to Zumbehl's house for food, games, cards and time together.
Those gatherings were "just so Nancy," Burnham said. "I can't even imagine going to my sister's house and not having her there at Christmas."
The family decided it would be too hard to get together the same way this year. Zumbehl's husband and children have made other plans, and Burnham and her husband will be having dinner with some friends. When she got the dinner invitation and looked at the calendar, she couldn't help but think, "That's the day we would have been at Nancy's house."
Instead, the extended family get together another time – maybe for bowling, or pizza.
"Life changes," Burnham said.
"You get over losing a wallet," Burnham said. "You get through this."
That same NCIS line stood out to Rebecca Harms. It's her first Christmas without her husband, Michael, who died of brain cancer in May. He was 28.
"I'll never get over him," Harms said. "He'll always be part of my life."
For her, "getting through it" means trying to keep things as normal as possible. Her 5-year-old daughter, Emma, needs that stability. They'll be spending Christmas with Harms' parents, who live down the street – for Emma, it's normal to spend a lot of time with them.
When Harms decorated the Christmas tree, she still hung the ornaments commemorating her first Christmas with her husband.
"It's part of my life," she said. "It's part of my story."
It's a hard story, but not one that she wants to erase.
"In the end, it sucks. A lot," she said. "But that's why you have friends, a church, a family."
Support amid the struggle
Steve Swope, pastor of Columbia United Church of Christ, has watched people go through struggles like these.
"Our culture is all shiny and bright, and 'Ho, Ho, Ho,' and holly jolly and all that," Swope said.
But when death, divorce and other hardships happen, the dynamics of Christmas drastically change.
It's not something a lot of people have talked with him about, but as a pastor, "it's something that you kind of notice."
He's also experienced holiday pain. When he went through a divorce years ago, the first Christmas without his children at home was uncomfortable.
Yet despite the need for support, it's not always there.
"In our cultural experience of grief, people are around for a short time – they buck you up and move on," Swope said.
Often, those struggling with grief need the support of people "who simply just affirm and accept where you are," he said.
"It's important to remember that you're allowed to be happy, you're allowed to be sad, you're allowed to whatever you need," says social worker and author Amy Sales in an ABC News article.
Accepting and allowing those honest emotions is part of the idea behind a service Swope's church will be holding Saturday night.
Blue Christmas, as the service is called, is a time for people who have been through a hardship – death, divorce or something different – to come together and acknowledge their struggles in the midst of Christmas traditions.
The Christmas tree in the church will be decorated, but not illuminated. Christmas hymns will be sung, but they will be softer ones – some of them with alternate verses. Swope picked this version of "O Little Town of Bethlehem":
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to thee, Son of the Mother mild,
Where charity stands watching, and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night breaks, the glory wakes, and Christmas comes once more.
Blue Christmas is not unique to Columbia – churches across the country hold services like this one. Swope said he first heard the idea about 10 years ago, and last year was the first time Columbia United Church of Christ tried it.
Similarly, some churches hold "Longest Night" services on Dec. 21 – the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. But the basic idea is the same: The service is a special place for those experiencing loss or grief – especially that first holiday without a loved one.
"Those 'firsts' are really ambiguous and troubling," Swope said.
That's something Burnham and Harms, among others, know well. For Burnham, it's been nearly a year of "firsts" without her sister.
"You get through it – you do," Burnham said. "You go, one more 'first' down."
Blue Christmas service information
When: 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1