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Melissa Stokes on her mum's lasting legacy: "She didn't want to be in pain anymore"

After the hardest goodbye, she’s truly grateful for her mother’s loving legacy

By Fleur Guthrie
Gill Stokes was a grandma extraordinaire. Fully present in her four grandchildren's daily lives, she fronted up to every school assembly, always had home-baking in the tins and could whip up a last-minute costume with the utmost skill.
Or if her daughter, TVNZ star Melissa Stokes, ever needed to be up at 3am to present Breakfast, Grandma Gill – or "GG" as she was affectionately known – would drive over at the crack of dawn to care for her grandsons the next morning.
Following a stage-four lung cancer diagnosis in 2016 (hers is a type of cancer found mostly in non-smoking Asian women), the 72-year-old made it her mission to "hang on" until her grandchildren had got through primary school.
Seven years later, after achieving her goal, there was only one thing Gill wanted to call the shots on – her death.
When the End of Life Choice Act 2019 came into effect on November 7, 2021, it opened the door for her to start having discussions about how and when she would like to go.
"This time last year, Mum's cancer went to her brain and we knew it was the end-game," shares Melissa, who wanted to address how her mother died because it was a "huge part" of Gill's journey.
Melissa was "overwhelmed with gratitude" for the people who supported her family.
"Last January, she underwent more radiation treatment in the hope it might be the magic bullet."
But it didn't work. As the devoted grandmother's condition deteriorated, she remained steadfast that assisted dying was all she wanted.
"Her oncologist couldn't mention it unless she, the patient, brought it up first. So at one of our meetings, we said, 'Mum's actually thinking about this.'
"He said okay and the advice was that the patient should set a date but have a six-month period where they can push it out if they change their mind. From a journalistic perspective, it was an interesting experience, but it just happened to be my wonderful mother at the centre of it all!"
Before consent could be granted, Gill had to go through a number of meetings to ensure it was solely her decision. Not everyone who has a terminal illness is eligible.
Melissa, 45, never wanted her mother to feel bad about her choice to leave them. She also didn't want to know, at least initially, the date that Gill had chosen.
"I knew roughly when it would be. Then I went away for King's Birthday Weekend and came back to visit my parents. I remember Dad turned to Mum and said, 'Tell her...'. Mum had decided she wanted to go the next week."
While the 1News presenter found having a date and a time for her mum's death "extremely hard" to deal with, she used all her emotional resolve to try to always be supportive and hide her tears.
"It was awful," reflects Melissa, as her eyes well up. "I don't think you're ever ready to say goodbye. But also, we felt a responsibility to get Mum to the finish line how she wanted. It was one of the most stressful and anxiety-driven weeks that I've ever experienced."
This year, the TV journalist is putting her focus firmly on family, friends and the things that spark joy.
She and her cameraman husband Dave Pierce, 47, chose not to tell their sons, Hugo, 11, and Freddie, nine, because it was just "too big" for the children.
"The narrative we told them changed from 'GG's quite sick but hopefully she'll be here a bit longer' to 'GG's very sick and you might want to say goodbye.'
"I only told a handful of friends, but I felt a really heavy burden putting it on them."
Even though Melissa's mum was stoic, every day had become more excruciating than the last. Getting on with things had always been Gill's second language.
"She didn't want to be in pain any more," tells Melissa. "She didn't want her beloved grandkids to see her like that. She kept saying, 'You guys will be fine!' And I think she felt that once she was gone, we would all click back into normal life.
"My mum was never a selfish person, but she was adamant she was ready to go. She'd actually never been so determined about something in her life.
"She was very at peace with her decision and I hate that saying, but she really was quite unemotional about it. I'm not sure if that was her way of coping or if the cancer had affected that part of her brain. It was like she was just enduring that last week."
Melissa, her younger sister Olivia and dad Roger, 74, underwent a counselling session the day before Gill died.
With her mum and younger sister Olivia.
She wrote her mum a letter to read – "because I couldn't say it face-to-face" – and when the time came to say goodbye, it was the three of them in the room holding Gill's hands.
"The funny thing was, Mum was quite blunt. She didn't want the people who were doing the assisted dying to be late. She didn't want us to introduce ourselves to them. She just wanted them to get the job done!
"Right up until she died, Mum was compos mentis and present. It was so surreal. When it was happening, I thought, 'I don't know how I'd ever explain this to somebody else.' It looked like a very peaceful way to go and we immediately felt the relief."
Then, Melissa adds, the real sadness kicked in a week or so later.
Roger finally brought himself to read Gill's diary, where she'd jotted down the long-suffering side-effects of her different cancer medication.
"I haven't read it yet, but it really kind of broke Dad because there's been something all the time that Mum was dealing with, which she hid from us."
Watching Melissa bravely recount her mum's story is touching – understandably, her voice wavers as she talks and it's told mostly through tears.
The beautiful bride alongside Mum and Dad.
There's laughter too, however, as she figures out how grief and joy can hold hands.
Throughout Gill and Roger's 52 years of marriage, Melissa says her dad never really cooked or cleaned. "So Mum left him a detailed notebook of household instructions, like a drawing of where the lint removal part of the dryer is!" she grins.
And because there's no rule book for when someone you loves dies, Melissa showed up to her on-air TVNZ shift three days after Gill's death, grateful to have a different focus.
"There were only four people I'd told at work beforehand. Two of them had set up this cute roster of popping in to check on me and bring food. After Mum died, [1News Pacific Correspondent] Barbara Dreaver brought me a candle to light in Mum's memory.
"At the time, I was quite overwhelmed with gratitude by how many people we had around us. It was so nice. I didn't think we had that many people who cared for our family."
Navigating all the "firsts" – birthdays, Christmas and other special celebrations – without Gill has of course been hard.
"Sitting beside poor Dad, I cried my way through both boys' end-of-year assemblies, just feeling so sad that she isn't here any more to see them grow up. She loved them and they loved her so much."
Melissa says her dad has been amazing (and yes, successfully cleaning out the lint drawer too) in leading the way for the Stokes' to come back together as a close-knit family.
"We walk or have coffee once a week and he's taking the kids on little trips. He and Hugo had a particularly eventful trip to Great Barrier Island, where they experienced 'wind shear' [a meteorological phenomenon], which I had to look up!"
Dearly adored Gill with her wee grandson Hugo.
Her sons have always been active and now that Hugo is in Year 7 at a boys' secondary school, he has joined the run club, while younger son Freddie has taken up water polo. "It's all go!"
Tauranga-born Melissa continues to find fulfilment – and a greater connection to New Zealand – through learning te reo Māori each week, which is taught by TVNZ presenter Scotty Morrison and his broadcaster wife Stacey.
"The Māori classes have been really great, and we talk about life and death quite a lot because it's important in te ao Māori [the Māori world view].
"They look at death very differently to the Western culture. It was Matariki too when Mum died in mid-June, so I felt like that was a really nice acknowledgement of her."
While still predominantly reading the weekend news, the trained journalist has also recently started producing a series called Newsmakers, where Melissa revisits people who were once in the headlines.
"I've spoken to legendary New Zealanders like Lorraine Downes, Sir Michael Jones, Olly Olson and Dame Fran Wilde," she tells. "It's such a great opportunity to look back at memorable Kiwi moments and bring treasures from the TV archives back into the public eye. This month, we're doing John Perriam, who owned Shrek the hermit sheep who became a jet-setting celebrity!"
Hot on the heels of one of her hardest years, Melissa shares that her mum's death has also made her appreciate the beauty in this life and the need to try to make every opportunity count.
"Death really makes you realise some of your core values," she reflects.
"While it's confronting to think about your own mortality – and some days I just want to pull the covers over my head – you've got to attack the world with positivity and altruism, and try and find things that bring more happiness. So that is how I would like to attack 2024!
"I want to surround myself with my wonderful family and friends, and keep striving to do what I do best... And it's all from Mum that that came from.
"She could always be counted on to show up for us – she was always willing to make sure I could take the career opportunities that were presented to me. I'd like to be that to my boys too," smiles Melissa.
"It was family that she counted as her most important success."

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