By MAGGIE GEBHARDT

mgebhardt@dailynews.net

As Christmas approaches, stirring joy and excitement all around, those in a darker place who are mourning the loss of loved ones are not forgotten.

Center for Life Experiences in Hays is hosting a candlelight service at First Presbyterian Church, 2900 Hall, at 7 p.m. Sunday.

Those associated with groups including Healing After Loss of Suicide, Healing After Loss, Healing Heart and National Alliance for Mental Illness are welcome, along with friends, family and community members. The event is open to anyone.

"It's a day that people can get together and do something special for the person they've lost," said Doris Schmidt, parent facilitator at Healing Hearts.

Especially during this time of the year, families are struggling with the holes left in their hearts after grieving loved ones, Schmidt said.

"When it comes to the holidays, it's very hard because you're missing them," said Mary Akins, a member of NAMI.

There will be a few readings and songs before the candlelight portion of the event. Each individual holding a candle is then asked to come forward, light the candle they are holding and say the name of the person they would like remembered. Candles are placed on the alter until the service comes to a close. Afterward, everyone picks up their individual candle, and "Silent Night" is sung as the group exits for refreshments.

"It gives you chills. It's really something special," Schmidt said. "Even after all these years, it still gives me that same feeling of being healed."

The candlelight service has been taking place in Hays since 2001. It was first started by Healing Hearts and conducted for families mourning the loss of a child.

"It is something special that we can do, especially for the child that is no longer with us," Schmidt said. "So many people are able to buy gifts for their kids, have dinner with their kids. But for those who have lost a child, you aren't able to do that."

The event takes place Sunday, the winter solstice and longest, darkest night of the year.

"When you're in grief, everything is dark. You're living in a tunnel. You're living in a fog," Schmidt said. "You are in a deep shadow, which is symbolized with the 21st of December. But as time goes on, the days get brighter."

"We come to these long, dark periods of our lives, but there is light in the new day," said Ann Leiker, executive director at Center for Life Experiences.

Part of the reason members of the community like to attend events such as the candlelight service is to experience a sense of togetherness, organizers said.

"Sometimes we feel isolated and think we're the only ones dealing with hardship," Leiker said. "When you come together like this, it gives you a feeling of peace and support."

Mostly, the benefit of the event is receiving the feeling of hope and love, Leiker said.

"Christmas is about hope," she said. "We can share our love stories. That is what this is about -- sharing the stories of love in our lives."