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The tragic loss of 16-year-old Maren Sanchez has shaken a Connecticut community and sparked an online debate over her memory. On Friday, Sanchez, a student at Jonathan Law High School in Milford, was fatally stabbed after allegedly turning down a classmate's request to go to prom. The dance, which was scheduled for that evening, was postponed and instead Sanchez's classmates attended a seaside vigil for the student. Then, dressed in formal attire, students posed for a photo with the green prom dress Sanchez had planned to wear that evening.
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The photo, posted April 25 on NBC Connecticut's Facebook page, went viral with 40,000 likes and over 2,000 comments. But not everyone was comfortable with the image.
“It kind of bothers me that they’re smiling,” wrote one commenter. Other also expressed concern that the happy faces in the picture didn’t emphasize the tragedy enough or that it felt confusing or discordant to have smiles next to Sanchez’s unworn dress. Some of these comments were later deleted, although it’s not clear whether moderators or the users themselves were the ones who removed them.
However, other commenters, some of whom were at the vigil, quickly jumped to the defense of those involved in the photo. Two commenters claimed Sanchez's family requested that the students smile for the photo. "They put smiles on their faces to give a moment away from the sadness for the family and the other adults there," wrote one woman on Facebook. "Could you stop for a moment and ask yourself how hard that was for them to be strong and give this gift to the family!!"
Another added: "Parents ASKED all the kids to do this for them. It will be the only memory they left for HER prom. So stop with the comments and just say a prayer for the family.."
“They're kids doing what they believe she would have liked. They are celebrating HER LIFE. I think it's sweet. Maybe we, as adults, would not do the same, but kids have their own way of coping with tragedy and this brought them all together tonight,” one commenter wrote.
“If this gave the family an ounce of peace on such a tragic day, then who is anyone to judge?” wrote another commenter.
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Relatives of Sanchez declined to comment on the photo. Milford County Schools also refused to weigh in on the image, calling it “a police matter.”
On Friday, Sanchez, who was class president, was remembered and heralded for her upbeat spirit.
“She was always happy, and it took a lot to get her down, and she was always there for you if you were her friend,” Evelyn Castro, a friend of Sanchez’s, told CBS News.
After taking the photo, the students released balloons into the sky — purple, which was Sanchez’s favorite color. "Purple symbolizes royalty and to me Maren was royal,” said Imani Langston, who identified herself to the news outlet as Sanchez’s best friend.
Donna Schuurman, the CEO of The Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon, a family-focused grieving center, cautions adults against projecting their own feelings of grief onto teenagers. “People try to put [teens] on lockdown out of concern for emotional safety, but it makes them want to act out,” she says. Instead of trying to police teens’ feelings, she encourages parents and other concerned adults to spend more time listening than talking. “Don’t be over-controlling. Don’t rush into making them feel better or using platitudes.”
As for the prom photo itself, Sherman considers it a positive action. “They are finding and making their own ways to keep memories alive,” she says of Sanchez’s friends and classmates.
Although Jonathan Law High School’s prom was postponed after news of Sanchez’s attack and death was reported, the dance took place over the weekend. And the prom queen: Maren Sanchez.
“Maren should be celebrating at her prom this evening with her friends and classmates. Instead we are mourning her death and we are trying, as a community, to understand this senseless loss of life,” her cousin Edward Kovak said in a statement to reporters. The family has asked for their privacy and will not be issuing any additional statements until after Maren’s memorial service takes place later this week.
It isn’t only family and friends who were touched by Maren Sanchez’s story. After finding out that she had been a fan of his music and performed some of his songs, singer Phillip Phillips posted about the teen on his social media accounts.
I am so sad to hear of the tragic death of Maren Sanchez. My thoughts and prayers are with her family.
— Phillip Phillips (@Phillips) April 25, 2014
Jonathan Law High School is still currently closed, but the school is planning a memorial service tonight. The campus production of "Little Shop of Horrors," in which Sanchez had a role, will still be performed.