When actress Nikki DeLoach initially read the script for her latest Hallmark Christmas movie “The Gift of Peace,” it was the opposite of what she was looking for. Having recently experienced the painful loss of her beloved father to a rare and aggressive form of dementia called Pick’s disease, Nikki was hoping to star in a comedy that would get her mind off her grief. Instead, “The Gift of Peace” tells the story of a widow who feels angry at God and disconnected from her faith because of her husband’s death.
After working on the movie, though, Nikki now sees it as a gift from God that actually helped her process her grief to the point where she could experience hope and joy again. And she believes that viewers going through their own dark valleys will find insights in this story that can guide them back towards the light.
Nikki joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below) to discuss her own journey in recent years, as well as “The Gift of Peace,” which airs on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries throughout the Christmas season (but premiering on Saturday Dec. 10th at 10E/9C).
Nikki’s father died in July 2021 at age 66. She reflected, “We knew it was going to happen, but you’re just never prepared for the loss of someone you love so much. And much like Tracy, my character in ‘The Gift of Peace,’ I was coming into this movie very stuck in my life. I was…getting everything done. But there was no joy. There was just a deep, deep sadness and heartbreak that was layered over everything.”
In the movie, Nikki’s character Tracy is an artist who used to paint with her husband because they each brought different traits to the picture. Following his death, she is unable to paint the way she used to. She has also isolated herself from people much of the time and resents God because she and her whole church community prayed for her husband’s healing and absolutely believed it was going to happen. But he died anyway.
Hallmark movies don’t usually deal so overtly with matters of faith, but this first production under the company’s Dayspring brand handles the matter honestly and well, telling a story that is hopeful without sugarcoating the road through grief. As a person of deep faith herself, Nikki was the perfect person to star in this movie.
She noted, “When you go through traumatic loss, it’s normal for you to ask why, and for you to question the existence of God. If there is a God, why did this incredible person have to be taken?…One thing we touch upon in the movie is that commentary of, why did God do this to me? Why did God take him? [The truth is], God doesn’t take anyone or anything from us. That’s not how God works…But what God offers is a way to get back to the joy, to the peace, to the love, to hope. That is what God offers inside of the pain, inside of the grief.”
And that’s exactly what happened to Nikki: “Throughout the course of doing the movie and playing Tracy, life imitated art, and something opened up inside of me. I started to find the joy in my life again. I had promised my dad on the first anniversary of his passing, that I would begin to live again, that I would begin to find that joy and the celebration and the happiness in the big things and the small things. I had made that promise to him, and my dad was a man who had never let me down in my life. If I called, he was there, no matter what. His kids were the most important people to him. And so I didn’t want to let him down…This movie, and playing Tracy, opened something up in me and helped me start to move towards the joy again.”
Tracy begins to find healing in “The Gift of Peace” after she connects with a grief support group in her church. In essence, the members all help each other carry their pain, making it easier to bear because of the shared burden. This ties into one of Nikki’s core beliefs about how we can all be wounded healers, a mission she herself takes very seriously in light of her work with the Alzheimer’s Association, the dementia-related nonprofit Mind What Matters, and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which saved her son Bennett’s life after he was born with heart defects.
Nikki also did her best to serve as a wounded healer on a personal level to her co-star Brennan Elliott, whose wife is enduring a difficult cancer battle. She noted that everyone’s heart has been broken at times – and if it hasn’t been yet, it will be someday. And though these cracks in our hearts can’t be fully healed, they can become stronger in the broken places.
“The transformation happens in allowing God to emanate through the cracks,” explained Nikki. “Because when that light comes through the cracks and all of the broken places, that’s where you’re able to begin to be a healer. I don’t mean that you will one day wake up and not feel the pain…What I mean by that is that you get to be there for other people. You [develop] empathy and compassion and a humanity that you never had before. It allows you to sit with other people and see them when they’re in pain. And it allows you to be very merciful with your own pain and what you are going through. We’re all on the road to healing. We’re all trying to find a way to carry our grief, to carry our pain. Or we’re trying to get rid of it. But what we need to pivot to is to learn how to carry it. I think the road of the wounded healer helps you to understand that is a beautiful thing. That’s not a terrible thing. It’s a beautiful road to walk.”
That road will contain bumps, however. As Nikki discovered, “Grief is a minefield and you never know where the bombs are buried.”
She stepped on one of those bombs several weeks ago on her father’s birthday. Though she had prepared herself to celebrate his life joyfully on that day, she woke up feeling like she’d been hit by a train. So, going into Christmas this year, she is focused on taking each day as it comes and simply being in the present moment. She is also committed to living the way her father did.
Nikki said, “I’m trying to embody him in how I’m moving through the world. It has softened me…He was so present with his children. Nothing else mattered when you were with him as a child. You just knew you were the most important. I have 14 jobs…and I was finding myself sometimes being pulled in a hundred directions, when [my kids] were trying to get my attention. Now, the phone goes away. I get on their level.”
“With my dad,” Nikki continued, “it wasn’t about words. He was a man of very few words.He was a man of behavior. It was action…[I ask],what would my dad do in this moment? I know I have dishes to do and I have work…and I’m so tired. But you know what? My kid wants me to lay in the bed with him until he falls asleep. And it might take 45 minutes, but I’m going to lay in the bed. Because that’s what my dad did for me when I was scared at night, and I needed somebody to make sure that I got to sleep. So it’s those little things, I think, that can help people who are going through grief: figure out a way to keep the loved one alive inside of you in a very tangible way.”
For viewers who watch “The Gift of Peace” on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, Nikki has several hopes. She concluded, “If you are struggling – whether it’s grief or sadness or depression or loneliness or whatever – [I hope] you will reach out. There’s multiple ways to do that. Some people find it too vulnerable talking to people that are close to them, so a support group is a good thing, because it’s a bunch of strangers. You talk, you connect, you don’t feel isolated, you don’t feel alone. And then everybody goes about their lives. We’re not meant to carry anything alone. Anything. It’s not why we’re here…If I’m going to be the kind of person that’s going to support others, I need to also be the kind of person who allows myself to be supported when I need the help. That has been incredibly healing for me in my life, to allow somebody else to help me carry the grief, to help me carry the pain. So that’s one thing.
“Another thing I would say is, I think that there’s probably a lot of us people of faith that struggle with doubt. And in a lot of communities of faith, people have been told that if you doubt, that’s a sin. I know I heard it. [But] that’s simply not true. You are a human being. Life is hard, and you are going to have doubts. You’re going to wonder if God is there sometimes when you’re going through those valleys…If you have lost your faith along the way, that’s okay. You’re human and you will find your way back. You will. You’ll find your way back to God, you’ll find your way back to that faith that you’ve had, and actually it will be stronger on the other side of that journey.”
(To listen to my full interview with Nikki DeLoach, click on the podcast link.)
RELATED: 2019 Interview with Nikki DeLoach
Photo credit: Allister Foster / Copyright: ©2022 Hallmark Media