Bill Hewitt
October 09, 2006 12:00 PM

Throughout her grief, she took long daily walks with her 9-year-old Irish setter Jack. On a recent day, though, Olivia Newton-John allows a visitor to tag along. Dressed in khaki capris and a long-sleeve T-shirt that read “Laugh at yourself often,” she stopped at one point to feed a neighbor’s horse a carrot. “This is one of my favorite sounds in the whole world,” she said of the loud munching. But it quickly became clear that her emotions are still on overload. Walking in silence amid the oaks and wildflowers she begins to cry, and pretty soon tears are flowing freely. “Everybody has suffering,” she says. “I don’t think any of us escapes something.”

For 15 months, Newton-John has been coping with the mysterious disappearance of her longtime boyfriend Patrick McDermott, who vanished while on a fishing trip off Los Angeles on July 1, 2005. “I loved him a lot and I miss him a lot,” says Newton-John, 58, speaking publicly for the first time about her loss. “He was the most romantic person I have ever known.” To honor her eight-year love affair with McDermott, 48, an accomplished amateur musician, Newton-John chose her own great love—music. The result is a just-released New Age-ish album of healing songs, Grace and Gratitude. “This album is helping me get through it, as well as to help others and give gratitude for what I do have, because I know how lucky I am.” Yet there is no denying the hurt she has endured over her loss. “She was devastated,” says Amy Sky, who produced the album and is a longtime friend of Newton-John’s. “She just asked for our prayers and our support.”

Newton-John’s suffering has been all the more agonizing because of the continuing mystery surrounding McDermott’s disappearance (see box, above right). Though no body has ever been found, initial indications suggested that McDermott, who had a history of financial problems and owed child support for a son by a previous marriage, fell or jumped overboard before the charter boat Freedom docked at the port of San Pedro after an all-night excursion. But earlier this year a more bizarre alternative arose when Australian newspapers claimed to have found several eyewitnesses who said they had seen someone resembling McDermott in the vicinity of the Mexican resort town of Cabo San Lucas. That stirred speculation that McDermott had faked his own death to start a new life. To Newton-John’s frustration, a Coast Guard investigation has still not established whether McDermott did or did not get off the boat. “I go through every emotion,” says Newton-John of the continuing rumors. “It just stirs it up again. It creates that ‘What if?’ And I don’t know each time.”

Deep down, however, she remains convinced that McDermott didn’t fake his own death, if only because he would never subject his now 14-year-old son to such anguish. “He just wouldn’t do that,” she says. “His son was everything to him.” That feeling is echoed by the boy’s mother, McDermott’s ex-wife Yvette Nipar, 41, who has become close friends with Newton-John during the ordeal. “I can’t imagine him leaving our son ever,” says Nipar, an actress who was divorced from McDermott in 1998. “I just can’t see it.” Nipar also scoffs at the notion that McDermott might have decided to flee out of fear that she was about to have him thrown behind bars as a deadbeat dad. “Never in a million years would I put my son’s father in jail,” she says flatly.

In any event, the first six months of McDermott’s disappearance were almost unbearable for Newton-John. “I took antidepressants,” she says. “I had to.” She is quick to add that the healing only really began when she stopped taking the medication. “Once you go off them you can deal with it better,” she says. “It’s important to go deeply into your emotions. You have to cry.” One of her lingering sources of pain is the fact that at the time of McDermott’s disappearance, the couple were going through a brief separation. Indeed it was not Newton-John who reported him missing (she was in Australia visiting a critically injured goddaughter), but rather Nipar, who notified authorities on July 11 after McDermott failed to show up for a visit with his son. “We were on a break, but we had been on breaks before and we got back together,” Newton-John explains of the separation. “We had a wonderful relationship. He had a good soul, a good heart.”

The couple met in 1996, during the filming of a commercial, not long after Newton-John had split from her husband of 11 years, Matt Lattanzi. (They have a daughter, Chloe, now 20.) Aside from his camera work, McDermott had a gift for charming everyone he met. He won Newton-John’s heart one Valentine’s Day by leaving clues around Malibu that led her down to the beach, where he was waiting with a bottle of champagne. Nevertheless, in recent years McDermott had been barely getting by financially and had even filed for bankruptcy in 2000. He lived in a modest home in a blue-collar section of Van Nuys, where he was often seen with his son. “He had a lot of pride,” says Newton-John of McDermott’s money woes. “So I didn’t know the extent of it.”

Looking back, Newton-John’s friends believe she was, in some respects, unusually well-equipped to deal with the loss of her lover. In 1992 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo a partial mastectomy and chemotherapy, and the strength she gained from that battle seems to have come in handy. Says her friend Sky: “Once you’ve been to the bottom and gotten back up, I think you realize that there is always a way up from any bottom. And that life doesn’t guarantee that you get only one bottom.” But as Newton-John points out, “I’ve been through cancer and divorce. Nothing compares to this.”

After McDermott went missing, Sky broached the idea to Newton-John of using music to cope. In January the two collaborators teamed up in Malibu and within a matter of weeks had written many of the songs that would make it onto Grace. “She was willing to be open and channel her own need for healing into what we were writing, so it’s very authentic,” says Sky, who worked on Newton-John’s last album. “It’s not like the world of pop music that Olivia and I create in. It’s much more reflective.” Still, recording the music wasn’t always easy. There were days when Newton-John became emotional and would have to take a break, but the effort had the desired effect on her psyche. “It gave me a lot of pleasure and peace to do it,” says Newton-John of the recording sessions. “It was a wonderful experience—and difficult at times.”

Nipar, who talks to Newton-John almost every day, says that she, for one, finds the album a great comfort. “Another crazy confirmation that good comes out of bad,” she says. “I think it’s phenomenal.” Meanwhile, Newton-John acknowledges that a bit of the pain of her loss will be with her the rest of her life. As a memory of her love, she created a stone labyrinth in the back of her Malibu home, where she often goes to pray and meditate. She is quick to add that she no longer feels in danger of getting lost in those memories. As she puts it, “I’m moving forward in a positive way.”

To hear a sampling of Newton-John’s Grace and Gratitude, log on to PEOPLE.COM/OLIVIA

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