GRAND FORKS-The Rev. John Golv, of Zion Lutheran Church in Thief River Falls, had a solemn task to carry out.
Though funerals come with the job for a minister, Golv had arrived Thursday at Hope Church in Grand Forks to conduct a memorial ceremony for three children who died in unsettling circumstances.
Police have concluded Arianna Talmage, 6, Aidan Talmage, 10, and Tyler Talmage, 14, were killed by their mother, Astra Volk, 35, who then committed suicide. Investigators are still trying to figure out why, but Golv didn't spend much time wrestling with hindsight.
"However death happens, it is always tragic," he told mourners scattered throughout the church's large worship hall. He didn't speak to how the children died. But in the past, Golv said, he had friend who died from a rare yet devastating illness. For that friend, as with the children or anyone else, he said the cause of death is never defining.
"And if all we remember is that, we don't begin to do justice to them," Golv said. "There's more to every life than every manner of death."
The children had just begun their own lives. The pastor spoke to who they had been for these too-short years. Tyler, he said, loved dinosaurs and animals of all kinds, especially his pet guinea pigs. His little brother, Aidan, "loved to go outside if someone was ready to throw a football to him" and Arianna, the youngest, loved to dance and mold with Play-Doh.
As with many children, Golv said all three shared a love of their grandma's cooking-and also video games.
Their father, Brian Talmage, and grandmother, Lynnelle Talmage, were flanked by mourners and well-wishers throughout the Friday service. The same was true for their other grandmother, Beth Richards, mother to Astra, their stepfather, Heath Volk, and their surviving older brother.
Last weekend at a vigil outside the family home, Richards had shown off photos she'd taken of her grandchildren during one of their most recent visits to her Florida home. In those happier days, the kids had spent time plucking oranges from the trees and playing with a neighbor's chickens.
Those moments are now captured in memories and snapshots, some of which were pasted to collage boards flanking Golv's pulpit with floral displays on the church's stage. When the pastor finished his sermon-leading the congregation in unison to join him in saying "We love you" to the family of the children-the mourners collected 300 balloons from the church's lobby before walking as a group to its small memorial garden. There, they released the balloons as one.
The small cloud of red, orange and purple rose toward the sun in a loose column. Within minutes, the balloons were nearly out of sight, just points against the sky.
Far below them, the mourners embraced, wiping eyes and gathering thoughts before trickling from the garden.
The family's deaths struck a deep chord in the Grand Forks community that prides itself on its family values.
The bodies of mother and children were discovered Thursday, May 3, by a school resource officer dispatched when the Talmage siblings didn't arrive at school. Arianna and Aidan were students at Lewis and Clark Elementary School, located just blocks from the family's rented home. An October newsletter from the school indicates Volk was on its parent teacher organization. Tyler, the oldest child in the home, was a student at Central High School.
Investigators now believe mental illness played some role in the killings, citing evidence from Volk's digital communications and from interviews with those who knew her. Richards said Volk had suffered from bipolar disorder since her adolescence and had attempted suicide in February, for what Richards believed was the first time.
Police reports indicate police had responded to a call at the Volk household in 2014 after receiving a report from a caller who said Volk had been texting to announce that she intended to commit suicide that night. When police arrived, they found her in an agitated state. Volk admitted she'd sent the messages and went willingly to Altru for psychiatric care.
Just about a week before the killings, Volk had posted to fundraising site GoFundme, seeking donations to cover living expenses as the family coped with medical debt. In the post, Volk wrote that she and her children suffered from mental illness and had been hospitalized for their conditions. Police records speak even more to that, and it appears Volk's personal difficulties were compounded by those of her children.
At least one of her sons had autism spectrum disorder, a condition that left him prone to violent outbursts at school and home that led to police involvement. At least once, that brought him to juvenile detention. But mostly, he was taken for psychiatric care.
According to the records, he often didn't understand the cause of his intense emotional episodes, sometimes expressing a desire to be taken by police to prevent harm to others.
Local residents have focused on mental illness to explain what went wrong in the family home, taking to social media in the wake of the deaths to make their own support groups.
Police haven't yet said what other factors might have played into the events of last week but have kept their investigation open.