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'Life's A Vapor, A Very Fragile Thing': Grief And Rebuilding A Year After Tornadoes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Tennessee now, where a year ago today, tornadoes killed 25 people and destroyed more than 1,600 buildings. One year later, people are still dealing with the complexities of starting over and rebuilding. And some people who are caring for others are also navigating their own grief. Reporter Tasha Lemley of member station WPLN has this story of one preacher and his family.

TASHA LEMLEY, BYLINE: Around 50 people gather for Sunday worship at the Church of Christ at Colonial Heights in Cookeville, T.N.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing, unintelligible).

LEMLEY: Rodney Pitts is the evangelist here.

RODNEY PITTS: Amen to that song. You've led a lot of songs that really touched me today. And I'm sorry. I'll get myself together here in just a second. Just give me a minute that - for that song.

LEMLEY: Pitts has spent his career, and especially this last year, caring for his people. As usual, after the church service is over, he stands at the back and checks in to see how everyone's doing.

PITTS: So, Adam, man, how's it going?

ADAM: I've been having a hard time sleeping or sort of like - it's not that - it's just hard time with, like, sleep schedule...

LEMLEY: This attention comes with being a pastor, especially a pastor to people in this small community where 19 died in one of the worst storms in Tennessee's history.

PITTS: There's a - now a duty to help others get through so that, coming on the year anniversary of some tragedy, they're not a broken mess.

LEMLEY: The thing is, Rodney is also in the middle of his own grief. The tornado that touched down early the morning of March 3, 2020, hit the neighborhood where his daughter, Erin Kimberlin, lived. Erin, her husband Josh and their 2-year-old son, Sawyer, all died that day. That left Rodney and his wife, Tricia, with an unfathomable void.

TRICIA: It's been hard. Erin was not only our daughter, I mean, she and I truly were best friends.

LEMLEY: Tricia Pitts says over the years they've been with other families through their worst days, and that vulnerability has created an intimacy, making it just a little bit easier for them to be the ones in a position of needing help now.

TRICIA: Our group is not that large, and so we've always been a family. It was just very natural for them to step in and for us to let them.

LEMLEY: Throughout the year, Rodney has kept working, kept preaching. He says that the loss still catches up with him and that he's cried more than he ever thought he could. But then he gets back to work. The work has kept him going. So in a year when so many are social distancing, he's been plugging in, connecting. And he says losing his family this way has made him a better church leader.

PITTS: It's a shame. I mean, here I am, a preacher of the gospel. And it took this kind of rocking of our world to finally help me see what the Lord has been trying to tell me all along is, look, this is what I've done for you. Now you do it for other people.

LEMLEY: Rodney used to watch his grandson and wonder what it was going to be like to see him grow up. There's a video of Sawyer back at the church standing by the pulpit. He's singing and waving his little arm at a songbook, practicing for the day he would get to lead worship.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAWYER: (Vocalizing).

LEMLEY: Now, looking at the video, Rodney's reminded of a lesson he's been preaching for years, that life's a vapor, a very fragile thing.

For NPR News, I'm Tasha Lemley in Cookeville, T.N. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.