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After a friend died, these teens wore her prom dress to keep her memory alive

Together they are “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Prom Dress”: Four young women who carried the memory of a dear friend close to their hearts by wearing her prom dress to their own dances this spring.

Catherine Malatesta adored the long blue dress she wore to her junior prom a year ago. Though frail and gravely ill with stage 4 cancer, she felt beautiful and had a wonderful night.

For many, that was their final image of Catherine, a hard-working and effervescent student from Arlington, Massachusetts; she re-entered the hospital several days later and died on Aug. 2 at age 16, less than a year after her illness was detected.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Goodwin
"The Sisterhood of the Traveling Prom Dress": An image of Catherine Malatesta on her prom night last year is surrounded by her friends who wore her gown to their proms this spring. Pictured clockwise from upper left are Emma Schambers, Jillian Danton, Carly Blau, posing a day before her prom, and Lauren Hourican.

Though the tribute of wearing the gown grew from heartbreak for Catherine’s friends, they were happy and proud to wear the dress for prom and remember their friend.

“It was bittersweet but it was magical at the same time because it was like she was with me, and it was very special to wear the gown she loved so much,” said Emma Schambers, 18, of East Greenwich, Rhode Island. “It was an honor.”

Knowing that Catherine has not been forgotten means everything to her mother, Jennifer Goodwin. During what she called a grueling spring, when she should have been watching her daughter enjoy senior year, Goodwin visited with the teens on their prom night, “a joyful experience, albeit laced with sadness.”

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Goodwin, Emma Schambers, Lauren Hourican and Carly Blau.
On their prom nights this spring in Catherine Malatesta's gown are, from left to right, Jillian Danton, Emma Schambers, Lauren Hourican and Carly Blau.

“To see them wearing Catherine’s dress, they each radiated such incredible light from the dress, it was as if light was coming from the inside out,” Goodwin said, adding, “They all looked so beautiful in their own unique way.”

Goodwin, who offered the gown and other belongings to Catherine’s friends when they came to visit earlier this year, dubbed the foursome the “Sisterhood,” a spin on the popular book “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”

Just like the magical jeans that fit four friends with different builds, the dress appears to contain powers of its own; the only alteration it needed was a hem for two of the women.

“It was truly magical to see each one of them wear this dress and have it fit them like a glove and for them to be so happy wearing it,” Goodwin said. “It was amazing to see.”

Photo courtesy of Lauren Hourican
In the prom dress, Lauren Hourican is joined by Emma Schambers, who also wore the gown, and Catherine Malatesta's mother, Jennifer Goodwin.

In interviews with TODAY after their proms, the young women said that as they wore the dress, they were reminded of Catherine’s positivity, confidence, kindness — and her great dance moves, too.

The first to wear the gown was Jillian Danton, who grew up with Catherine in Arlington and saw her as a protective, big-sister type. A year younger than her friend, she wore the gown to Arlington’s junior prom on April 15.

"l definitely felt her with me the whole time, and it was an experience I wouldn't trade for anything in the world," an emotional Danton, 17, told TODAY for an earlier story. "It's an extra memory of her that I have to hold on to."

Next came Schambers, a camp friend who donned the blue frock for the East Greenwich High School senior prom on May 13. She knew how much Catherine loved her prom, and she wanted to carry on that spirit. Schambers had an amazing evening.

“Catherine would have been mad if I didn’t,” she said. “She loved to dance. I felt her energy and I felt her confidence. I think that helped me have a great night.”

Lauren Hourican, who played field hockey with Catherine, slipped into the dress for Arlington’s senior prom on May 20. She missed her friend on the dance floor, and felt beautiful in the gown just as Catherine did, a reminder to enjoy the night.

“If Catherine was here, she’d be ripping up the dance floor and cracking jokes at prom pictures,” said Hourican, 18. “It made me happy every time I’d look down at the dress. She wore this and she had one of the best times ever, so now I have to do the same for her.”

And last came Carly Blau of Beverly, Massachusetts, another camp friend who wore the gown to the Beverly High School senior prom on June 2. The experience was powerful and emotional, she said, and “definitely bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter.”

“It was mostly a way to remember her and show others that she was type of girl that truly deserved to be remembered,” said Blau, 18. “I was very, very happy to have her with me the whole time.”

The four women, who did not all know one another beforehand, share a special connection through the sisterhood.

“It binds us together,” Hourican said. “There are so many people in Catherine’s life that love her and miss her, but we all feel grateful we’re able to wear the dress to our own prom, and we have each other now to talk or hang out with if we’re feeling down or blue.”

The gown is returning to Arlington, and the sisterhood is expanding; two of Catherine’s friends and a seventh-grade cousin have already asked to wear the dress.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Goodwin
Catherine Malatesta with her family: Her mother, Jennifer Goodwin; her father, Gregg Malatesta; and brothers Reid and Drew in the summer of 2014.

For Goodwin, who described grieving the loss of a child as “a full-time job,” shuttling the dress back and forth and seeing Catherine’s friends carry on their love for her has been “such a positive light” amid heartbreak.

“These are the moments that we hang onto as we grieve our loss, as we miss our daughter more than we can imagine,” Goodwin said. “These moments are what help us to move forward. They help us to heal.”

TODAY.com contributor Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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