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19 Life Lessons From Roma Downey

The actress and author, 62, shares wise words for living a happy life

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John Russo

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.”

Serve somebody

Helping others was my father’s answer to everything. As we came home and flung ourselves dramatically onto the couch and said, “I’m bored,” his answer would be, “Well, get up and go out and do something for somebody else.”

Adopt a motto

At our production company, LightWorkers [founded with her husband, the producer Mark Burnett], we often quote a wonderful expression, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness,” which is what I try to do, telling stories of hope that uplift and inspire.



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Go with half full

I’ve never been a glass-half-empty kind of person. Really, what choice is there? We have to keep moving forward and make the best of it. I saw something recently that really made me laugh. It was like, “Is your glass half full or half empty?” And the quote said, “I’m just glad I have a glass.”


I’m a dancing queen. I put on ABBA and dance — it can change your mood so fast. Sometimes I just stand up and do five jumping jacks. It moves the blood around your body and changes your state of mind. Anything like that is a little tool.

Wash and thank

Years ago, someone told me, “Every time you wash your hands, say thank you.” Just that can change your mood. Look how many times we were washing our hands during the pandemic. The whole world was in chaos, and it helped remind me to stay in gratitude.

Don’t be old

Mark and I have a plaque with the Robert Browning quote “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be” on it. When we bought it, the word “old” wasn’t in our vocabulary about each other. And now we look at each other in the morning and laugh, because until we’re up and going, we are like a couple of old crankies. But isn’t it lovely? I’m so grateful I have such a great partner and husband and someone to grow old with.

Listen up

I look for solutions; as a producer that’s my job. But my daughter Reilly reminded me once, “Mom, I’m not looking for an answer, I just want to share something with you. You don’t need to do anything but listen.” And that was very profound. Just to be heard is helpful. Listen with your heart, or what I call holding a loving space. Everybody’s capable of that.

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Drink tea

Every event in my life — from my best friend saying “I’m getting married” or “I’m pregnant” to “My father’s dying” — has got a cup of tea connected to it. There’s good news: “Let’s have a cup of tea.” There’s bad news: “Let’s have a cup of tea.” There’s the comfort and the ritual of making it, which buys you a little space for grace. Between any event and your reaction to it, there’s that space … and it’s important to take that space. A cup of tea reminds you to do so.

Float like a butterfly

The butterfly has been a symbol of hope throughout my life. When Dad took me to the cemetery that first Mother’s Day after my mom passed, a little butterfly flew up from behind her gravestone. He said, “That could be your mother’s spirit, that little butterfly.” Butterflies are a reminder that in the cocoon, they must push and struggle to get out, and it’s the struggle that gives them the strength to fly. That’s been a great inspiration to me at times in my life — that the struggle is the very thing that strengthens you.

Keep learning

I went back to school and got my master’s degree in spiritual psychology. I’ve always been interested in spiritual psychology; it’s probably why I became an actor, which is like the study of human behavior and why people do the things they do and make the choices they make. Each year I try to learn something new. I think it’s important. Next year I’m going to attempt a language. I think it’s good for the mind to stay sharp, to stay active, and to challenge yourself.

Keep an open mind

My husband is currently learning how to drive a boat. We don’t have a boat, nor are we likely to get a boat. He just thought that would be something to do. He likes to be outdoors and to be on the water. And sometimes because of his TV show Survivor, he visits exotic locations, and it would be helpful for him to drive a boat there. We’re both of the mind that it’s important to keep learning, to keep open to the idea of learning.

Honor your ancestors

I love the light of candles. Mark and I were on the Ganges River, which is very sacred to the Indian people and in the Hindu faith. We were on the back of this boat, and the tour guide provided everybody with little tea lights that floated. We put the lights over the side of the boat in memory of our departed loved ones and those that have gone before us in memory of our ancestors. There were other boats on the river and the sun had just gone down, and everyone was doing the same. All these little candles merged together and floated down the river as one light. I found it incredibly moving, for all those that have gone before and all of us yet to come.

Light the way

When we went on our first mission for Operation Smile in Jordan, our children were quite young. It was hard for them to see children with cleft conditions. But ultimately the feeling they were left with was that when we step up and do something, together we can make a difference. They all came back and did fundraising in their schools. It inspired them to take an action. For Mark and me, this was something we hoped they would see. Because there is so much need in the world. We can spend $200 on some luxury item, and yet for $200 you could be an angel and buy a smile for a child and make a difference in somebody’s life forever. And that’s beautiful. Those are the kind of lessons I hoped my children would learn and take into their adult life.

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