After her rock-star husband’s tragic death, Vicky Cornell opens up about losing the love of her life, his battle with addiction and how she’s staying strong for their kids. Subscribe now for the exclusive story – only in PEOPLE.
On May 18, Soundgarden and Audioslave singer Chris Cornell, 52, was found dead in his hotel room shortly after performing at Detroit’s famed Fox Theater. The coroner declared the cause of death to be suicide by hanging, but his wife of 13 years blames another killer.
She welcomed PEOPLE into her home for this week’s issue, sharing beautiful memories of the life he had with her and their two kids Toni, 12, and Christopher, 11, as well as his daughter Lily, 17, from a previous marriage. But Vicky also opened up about the reason she feels he’s now gone.
“My Chris was happy, loving, caring and warm,” says Vicky. “This was not a depressed man—it wasn’t like I missed that. What I missed were the signs of addiction.”
For more on the Cornell family and how they’re coping, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Chris Cornell had struggled with substance abuse since childhood but had been sober for years, says his widow. But at the time of the singer’s death, prescription drugs were found in his system, including the anti-anxiety medication Ativan. She says for reasons that have never been explained to her, the medical examiner considered his death to be a suicide within hours—before toxicology results or full autopsy results, before the conclusion of the investigation into the circumstances of his death, and before considering the possibility that the drugs in his system, individually or collectively, altered his mental state (the coroner can only comment on immediate cause of death, not on what precipitated it).
For Vicky, it’s clear that a drug relapse drastically altered his state of mind on the last night of his life. “He didn’t want to die,” she says. “If he was of sound mind, I know he wouldn’t have done this.”
According to Dr. Benjamin Nordstrom, addiction psychiatrist at Phoenix House, “It’s hard to overstate how unpredictable the effects of mixing various mind-altering substances can be. Some of these combinations, especially those that involve sedative drugs, can lead to levels of impairment that are far out of proportion to what would have happened if the drugs were taken separately.” He adds, “In addition, suicide is nearly impossible to predict for families and professionals alike. Anyone struggling with substance abuse should seek help.”
After replaying the events over and over in her mind, one thing she says she knows for sure about the love of her life is that he was not himself that night in Detroit.
Normally, “Chris was humble, sweet, kind and good, with the patience of a saint,” says Vicky of the devoted dad who looking forward to a family trip to Disney World with their kids. She says he hadn’t relapsed since 2009, but now she wonders how she could have missed clues that he was in trouble again. Says Vicky, “I relaxed, I guess.”
Last year the grunge legend was prescribed Ativan as a sleep aid but recently still seemed deprived of rest. “That was a sign something was off,” says his wife. After his Detroit show, Chris woke her up by remotely turning their home lights on and off using the smart home system on his phone. Alarmed, Vicky called and, “He was on a rant,” she says. “I said, ‘You need to tell me what you took,’ and he just got mean. That wasn’t my Chris.”
She called his bodyguard Martin Kirsten, who told her the singer was taking double his Ativan dose. In a panic, she called the singer back, and when he didn’t pick up sent Kirsten to his hotel room. After breaking down two locked doors, the bodyguard found him slumped in a bathroom. He was pronounced dead when EMTs arrived.
“Addiction is a disease,” she says now. “That disease can take over you and has full power.” Now she’s focused on helping her children cope while trying to find a sense of normalcy. And she’s sharing her family’s pain for an important reason: “I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure other children don’t have to cry like mine have cried.”