With Laurissa Knowles From Valley Depths to Mountain Peaks (1993)

Laurissa’s career journey is truly extraordinary. Having been both a student and a teacher at Santa Maria College,  she eventually found her niche in the serene landscapes of the South West of Western Australia. It was here that she discovered her true calling as a celebrant and counsellor.

Laurissa’s unique specialisation in both roles allows her to stand alongside individuals during the pinnacle moments of joy and the depths of sorrow in their lives, showcasing a remarkable and rare skill set. Here is her story:

Tell us about your high school days. Which subjects were your favourites, and were there any teachers who left a lasting impression?

 High school was undoubtedly my favourite chapter of life. I felt confident and happy most of the time. I enjoyed participating in numerous activities offered at Santa Maria, including drama productions, band performances with Aquinas College, debating, public speaking, writing letters for Amnesty International, clowning, and liturgical dancing. Somewhere in all this I even managed to cram in some schooling.

My favourite subjects were English, Religious Education, Music, and Drama. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for sport!

I was fortunate to have some brilliant teachers who served as role models and mentors. Mrs Gwyneth Ife, Ms Diane O’Flaherty, and Ms Rosa Speranza made the greatest impressions on me.

Tell us about your journey post-graduation. Did you always have a clear vision of what you wanted to study and pursue as a career?

In Year 12, I was offered an early acceptance to Notre Dame, where I pursued Theology and Psychology. These subjects deeply resonate with me as I am endlessly curious about the meaning of life and what makes people tick. I have always had a profound sense of spirituality and desired to delve deeper into it. I have also known that I wanted to work with people in a creative and caring capacity. However, I never imagined I would end up in the funeral industry, conducting marriages, and specialising in palliative care and family counselling in the beautiful southwest. Nor did I anticipate teaching English and Religion at Santa Maria, two subjects I loved as a student!

Returning to Santa Maria as a teacher, what marked the biggest difference for you between being a student and a staff member?

Returning to teaching at Santa Maria was both eye-opening and fulfilling. Some teachers struggled to accept and treat me as a colleague, so I felt as though I had to work extra hard to earn their respect and be heard in discussions. However, others welcomed my youth, fresh ideas, creativity, and fun-loving personality. I didn’t realise how much hard work goes into teaching and how genuinely committed some of the staff were to the wellbeing of the girls.  

What led to your decision to move to the Southwest?

While teaching at Santa Maria, I was blessed with two sons, Ezekiel in 2000 and Dante in 2001. Both were regular visitors to my classroom and were adored by the students. However, I dreamed of giving them a country upbringing. Where better than the beautiful South West, where they could roam freely, connect with nature, and spend time by the ocean? I was drawn to the idea of working in a small community where I could forge meaningful connections and share ideas. I also fancied myself as a farmer and collected many stray animals who were harder to take care of than I thought.  A particularly memorable one was Frosty the goat who used to sneak into the house and stand on the kitchen table. 

Can you tell us about how you became both a Celebrant and Counsellor?

I was always drawn to working with death, dying and palliative care due to its profound significance in life. Witnessing ceremonies conducted without a high standard motivated me to become a celebrant. At 26, armed with a double degree and two young boys, I waltzed into the funeral director’s office in Busselton and asked if I could start conducting funeral services. To my surprise, they agreed, and within a week, I conducted my first funeral.  

After working in the funeral industry, I felt compelled to utilise my studies and open a private counselling practice, which I found immensely rewarding. However, I soon realised something was missing – how could I witness people’s heartbreak without also being part of their joy? This led me to study marriage celebrancy, becoming one of the youngest and most qualified celebrants appointed by the Federal Attorney General.  

Do you see any intersections or overlaps between the two roles?

My career is rooted in the principles of pastoral care, supporting people from birth to death and everything in between. Holding the privileged position of accompanying people through various phases of their journey, I am entrusted with the profound task of listening, comforting, and offering solace—whether through a simple smile or a heartfelt embrace. In this regard, my roles intertwine significantly, as I am intimately involved in guiding individuals through some of the most pivotal stages of their lives.

In what ways has being a celebrant and counsellor contributed to your personal growth?

Having the honour of being intimately close to people throughout their lives, has taught me the importance of not sweating the small stuff. It has taught me to cherish relationships and family above all else.  And the importance of approaching everything, even in the hard times, with a healthy dose of humour. 

Are there any specific lessons or insights you have gained through your experiences?

There is more to life than what meets the eye. I am convinced our earthly journey is only one part of the human experience. Never assume to know what someone is going through. Always err on the side of positivity but allow others to express their hurt and sadness without shutting them down. I bring a unique flair to my counselling, which I believe is an important part of connecting with people. I find that it is always beneficial to make people smile, something I achieve with the help of my unofficial therapy dogs, Donny and Millie. 

What words of advice do you have for students aspiring to study psychology and work alongside individuals during some of their most emotional moments?

The best therapists are those who see their limitations and give clients the space to be themselves. Genuinely care and listen first. Start practising these qualities in your everyday interactions—in your family, at school, and in your daily life.

Lastly, what are your favourite hobbies and simple pleasures in life that bring you joy during your downtime?

Some of my favourite pleasures in life are my beloved dogs: Donny and Millie, the beach, tending to my garden, music, and laughing with the people I love the most, especially my boys. And sleeping, I do enjoy sleeping! 

We extend our heartfelt gratitude to Laurissa for generously sharing her remarkable career journey with our community. 

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