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Roma Downey, 62, is an actress, producer and author. Her latest book, Be an Angel: Devotions to Inspire and Encourage Love and Light Along the Way, is out Feb. 21. Here she offers AARP readers her tips for leading a happy, healthy life.
Learn from grief
Anything that happens to you in childhood will always shape the person that you become. I lost my mother when I was 10 and my father in my early 20s. Those early losses, I think, created a very strong empathy in me for people who have suffered and a desire to reach out with kindness. I think sometimes when you share your story and you show how you got through something, it can be helpful to others who have experienced loss. Not that the book is only about loss, but my own story happens to have a fair share of that, unfortunately.
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Do it now
Don’t postpone joy. My mother, who died at 48, didn’t live long enough to use her wedding china. It was under lock and key in a little cabinet. When The Troubles [in Northern Ireland] escalated, a tank went down the street and the whole house shook like an earthquake. All the wedding china broke. I remember standing in the doorframe, watching my mother crying into the folds of her apron. The lesson I learned was: Don’t postpone. Live your life like every day is your last.
Love thy neighbor
Growing up in Derry in Northern Ireland, we were a city divided and segregated. But I was recently there, and I’m happy to report that people have figured out how to live together and how to share. The community is healing. It may take another generation or two, because there are people still alive who remember the real hurt. Time can be the healer of those things. It starts with intention and people who want to get along. Everybody wants the same thing, which is a roof over their head, food on their table and health for their family.
Believe in fate
I was just an actress looking for a job when Touched by an Angel turned up on my desk. I would have been happy to play a doctor, a lawyer, a mother, a babysitter — whatever. I was somebody who had to pay my rent like everybody else. As a person of faith, when I got this role I was thrilled to be the messenger. At the height of the show, 25 million people tuned in a week for a reminder that God loved them. It was such a privilege to be the angel who said those words.
Be the angel
During the first year of Touched by an Angel, I was at a children’s hospital and walked by a hospital room where a grieving family had just lost a child. The mother saw me and said, “Monica!” — the name of the angel I played on the show. She threw her arms around me, crying, and said, “I prayed that God would send me an angel, and here you are.” I didn’t know what to say. I just held her tight and prayed and tried to share the space with her. Later, I called [costar] Della Reese and said, “I didn’t want to pretend to be something I wasn’t.” She said, “Baby … she didn’t need an actress, she needed an angel. If we’re going to play angels, we have got to get out of the way and let God work through us.” I took that to heart. I thought, If people are going to see me a certain way, I’ll try to use my life for the good.
Find a family
Della ended up being the mother I had been looking for all these years — she taught me so much, and I love her and miss her dearly. We really were mother and daughter. Sadly, she ended up losing her only daughter while we were filming together. And in a very moving walk with her, she said to me, “Baby, I always knew that God brought you into my life because you needed a mom. I just didn’t know that He brought you into my life because I was going to need a baby girl.”