Siti Munirah almost landed her lifetime dream when she received a phone call that no wives would want to hear. As she was starting to lose perspective and focus, a number of events convinced her to carry on and finish what she started.

 

Dr Siti Munirah during an interview at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) recently. Photo by MOHE Editorial

IT was only several weeks away from her big day and Siti Munirah Mohd was gripped by so much fear and anxiety. Those five years of sleepless nights were nearing an end, and that one day would tell it all.

It’s the ‘viva voce’ day, or known as ‘Viva’ – a four letter word that means so much for one to earn a Doctor of Philosopy degree. A PhD.

That day would mean a final pathway for thesis defense, and a straight path to receive the doctorate title.

For the 30-year-old, the day would be a new beginning for her and her family as she had stolen a couple of years away of motherhood and wife duties to endless hours of research.

It would also be a new day for Munirah and her husband, Mohd Norazizi Hamzah,33, as they planned to settle down at a new place. This also meant Norazizi would not need to travel 80km everyday to work anymore.

And as Munirah was starting to embrace the upcoming changes in her life, a phone call catapulted her into the unimaginable.

That was a phone call with news that every wife dreads and hopes they never have to hear.

Norazizi met with an accident on his way to work. It was on 19 March 2017.

Photo of Dr Siti Munirah with her late husband, Norazizi Hamzah (left). Photo courtesy Dr Siti Munirah

“I dropped everything and rushed to the hospital. A lot of questions were running through my mind. Was he okay? What if something happened? How about the kids? Was he wearing his helmet right?” she told HE Today during an interview at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) recently.

And that one thing Munirah dreaded most happened. After four days in the Intensive Care Unit of Hospital Serdang, Norazizi drew his last breath.

Munirah was not only survived by three kids, but she was four months pregnant when she had to bury her husband and her children’s father.

“It all happened so fast sometimes I felt like pinching myself and making sure that it was merely a dream.

“The person, who had been my backbone all this while is gone forever. That thought is stuck at the edge of my mind at all time. And the question I’ve been asking myself was, ‘what’s next’?”

 

COPING WITH THE LOSS

Losing someone very dearly is never easy. Munirah spent a week in the room, depressed, overwhelmed and confused.

From day to day, she found herself fielding a barrage of questions about her husband’s passing.

“I kept assuring myself that it was fate, but somehow there was a voice telling me that it was entirely my fault.

“Because of my obsession for a scroll of PhD, my husband had to travel miles from Bangi to Gombak everyday, and because of that too, he died,” she said.

Munirah was depressed, emotionally detached, and was full of self-hatred.

Those thoughts, she said, drained her. She was overstressed and was rushed to the hospital a few times due to prenatal bleeding.

“My parent took care of my children at that time because I just couldn’t afford to dive into motherhood. I was too exhausted and crying all the time,” she said.

By giving herself time, Munirah thought she could pull herself together, but it only prolonged the grief as she became more depressed every day.

“It was hard. I was married to someone who would give the world just to make sure I achieve my dream.

“He let me used his car to classes while he beat the distance and horrendous traffic using a motorcyle. He returned from work everyday with an aching back, and sometimes drenching in rain, but would immediately attend to the kids first so that I could have the time for myself and focus on my research,” she said.

Not only that, after cooking for dinner, bathing the kids, feeding them and putting them to bed, Munirah said his husband would sit with her for hours as she burned the midnight oils.

“Literally, I didn’t need to do anything when he was around as he would make sure I would have ample time for myself and my research.

“I am always scared to spend the night alone so I enjoy the company, while he enjoyed seeing my progress everyday,” she said.

 

THE AWAKENING

Munirah spent many days mourning over her husband that she admitted neglecting her children and her unborn baby.

“I felt loss. Time passed and I couldn’t find the energy and words to offer to my kids.

“It is just too many hats I had to wear at the same time all of a sudden. I didn’t even know how to start over,” she said.

Munirah even considered not going to the ‘Viva’ presentation at all. A lot of friends and her PhD supervisors came and offered a piece of advice, but it was a seven-year-old girl’s word of wisdom that put her back to reality.

“My daughter came to me and looked me in the eye. She told me three words that came as an awakening to my series of depression – ‘Ummi kena kuat’ (You need to be strong).

All of a sudden, Munirah said she found a part of herself that she did not know existed, which is the strength to move on.

Dr Siti Munirah with her children at her place in Bangi. Photo by MOHE Editorial

No matter how many tears she shed, she realised that the only thing she could change was her mind set.

“I looked at my children and I was immediately convinced. I am their ‘ummi’ (mother) and I need to move on,” she said.

Munirah reminisced on how her husband had always wanted her to finish her PhD.

“My husband is a diploma holder, but never once he argued my decision to study at PhD level. In fact, he supported me from the first day I registered the program.

And in order to get the PhD, Munirah realised she needs to ace the ‘Viva’ presentation. The future of her career and her children depended on it.

 

THE D-DAY

It was exactly a month after her husband’s passing, and Munirah was all ready for her thesis defense.

As she entered the room where her Viva presentation would be held, she emptied her mind and started impressing the examiners.

“Previously, the thought of ’Viva’ would be nightmarish to me, but it was totally different this time.

She was focused but she was neither anxious nor excited. She said she almost felt ‘nothing’.

“I spoke about my research and never once I glaced at the time. It happened so fast and I just wanted to get it over with,” she said.

All her thesis supervisors came and waited outside of the examination room.

Munirah said, when the examiners announced that she nailed the presentation and congratulated her for earning the ‘doctorate’ title, she did not show any expressions on her face.

“I was blurred and I didn’t feel the need to celebrate as the person I wanted to be there most is gone.

“It was until one of my supervisors came to me and hug me really tight, that I felt a sudden rush of emotions. I found myself crying like a baby,” she said.

Munirah passed the ‘Viva’ presentation with minor corrections. She was allocated six months to rectify and send the necessary corrections, but she managed to finish it within a month.

She graduated on 28 October recently (2017) and earned her Doctorate Degree in Industrial Computing from UKM.

 

TOUGH LOVE

Every PhD journey, according to Munirah, is unique. And hers might be little compared to those who might have experienced worse and yet remained on track.

“It took me five years to complete my PhD because I got pregnant twice and needed time to recover from each delivery.

“I believe everyone faces different challenges, but once we set our heart to venture into PhD program, we have to finish it, come what may,” she said.

She said there is a widely-held stigma surrounding PhD life, that it is only for a selected few – the ‘bright’ ones.

“To me, PhD is not solely focused on one’s intelligence, but the ability to pick yourself up after much commotion. I was fragile, and I came to the point that I lose confidence in myself, in my research and the quality of the work I had done. It took a number of events to convince me to carry on,” she said.

She said completing a PhD is much more about patience, perseverance, and endurance.

“Some events might surprise or exhaust you, and there are blocks and friction along the way. But the most important thing is to always remember that it is okay to seek for help.

“Those help can come from your family members, close friends, supervisors, or even your five-year-old. Do not wallow in self-pity when you can get help,” she said,

Munirah is now working part-time as a research assistant at UKM. She is in the midst of job hunting.

The phase of life after her husband’s passing, she said, had taught her a lot to reflect on life.

“Eventhough I have taught myself to be stronger, I do have my ‘occassional breakdown’. It never gets easier, but every breakdown gives me a new strength to start over.

“I may lose the person I loved most, but I promised myself that come what may, I won’t lose myself, not anymore,” she added.

 

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